When I was 13 years old I watched somebody get shot point-blank in the face.
Their head snapped back, their body tottered slowly towards the ground like a chopped tree. Their lifeless body sprawled out in the parking lot outside the arcade before me and all of the other kids who had come outside to watch what we presumed was going to be a fight. The killer was 16 years old. He ran. Later, as the crowd of onlookers had swelled to maybe a hundred people, the killer reappeared among us, trying to blend in, pretending to wonder what all the commotion was.
Someone recognized him and told the police. The police grabbed him and threw him across the hood of my grandmother’s car. She had just arrived to pick me up. She screamed. The killer didn’t react. He lay on the hood as the police put the cuffs on him, his head turned towards my grandmother, his face a blank slate. He didn’t resist. He seemed at peace, resigned to what was now happening to him. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. What could possibly lurk beneath those hollow eyes, behind that pallid expression, that could make this boy not much bigger than myself go off and do a thing like that? What was his life like that delivered him to that moment?
“Boy, I’ll tell you what,” my grandmother said as we pulled out of the parking lot on our way home. “You ain’t never comin’ back to Aladdin’s goddamn Castle.”
My wife is a New Yorker and she’s always wondered why it seems that I know so many people who have died, and stranger still, so many who have actually killed someone. I’m from Hot Springs, Arkansas, and when I was growing up there in the 1980s and ’90s there were maybe around 30,000 people living there. I always told my wife that part of being from a small town means you know everyone, which means if someone gets murdered then you probably knew them and you probably knew the ones who did it, too. That answer always satisfied us both. But then in 2016 I moved my wife and our three children back to Hot Springs for a year while I researched and wrote my first book, The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice. Being back there among all the ghosts of my past made me wonder if my “small town” explanation really told the whole story.
One thing I did during that year was read a whole lot of Southern Gothic novels. It was a difficult project, and periodically I had to take breaks to read something light or hopeful or upbeat. The Southern Gothic tradition is full of violence, sometimes incredibly brutal, and often without any sentiment or resolution. So many Southern writers have used violence in their work to show a South that was in serious pain, suffering from poverty, racism, and all manner of moral deficiency. This same South went to great lengths to hide these failures behind over-the-top social mores that Southern Gothic writers ridiculed and stripped away.
The Vapors isn’t a work of fiction, but I tried to write it in such a way that it would feel as much like a novel to the reader as I could. I move through nearly 40 years of history using vignettes as signposts the way scenes in a movie might. Without much effort on my part the tropes of the Southern Gothic novel kept materializing. The main character in The Vapors is my grandmother, Hazel Hill, and the punctuation marks in Hazel’s life story were things like men beating her, men shooting at her, men flinging themselves from bridges to their death. Hell, there were even snake-handling Pentecostal preachers trying to save her and carnival con men sweeping her off her feet. The more stories I would hear about her the more I worried people would assume I was making it all up. If it were fiction, it would be awfully derivative.
But this was real shit. And furthermore, this was the kind of real shit that makes up a life lived out on the margins. Poverty in small town Southern America just begets this kind of violent, crazy stuff. That isn't to say that everyone that lives in poverty lives among insanity and violence. It's just to say that I understand why, to anyone who has been able to live at arm’s length or farther from real poverty, stuff like this seems like fiction.
Hot Springs, Arkansas, was once home to what the United States Department of Justice characterized as “the largest illegal gambling operation in America.” I was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, about a decade after that operation cratered and grew up during the period of time that Hot Springs was really struggling to figure out how to keep its head above water with the loss of its most important industry. It was a rough time. Maybe a year or two before the end of gambling in Hot Springs there was a huge hotel boom. Millions of dollars were spent on massive luxury resorts that would accommodate the two million visitors a year that came to the little town. Some of them didn’t even open until after the last casino closed its doors.
I grew up as Hot Springs came crumbling down, a long and painful process that saw extravagant, elegant hotels converted into subsidized housing for senior citizens or simply left empty and abandoned right in the middle of town. The amusement park closed down and kudzu grew all over the roller coaster. The Southern Club, one of the most storied casinos in the American South, became a wax museum. The Vapors, the crown jewel of Hot Springs’s glitzy nightclubs, was eventually converted into a church.
More important than the fate of all the beautiful buildings, many of the people of Hot Springs lost their livelihoods. The economy shifted under everyone's feet like an earthquake. The houses we all lived in lost their value. Downtown Hot Springs, once a beacon of nightlife and culture that attracted visitors from around the world, became a scary place to go at night. There were seven strip clubs in a city with fewer than 30,000 people. Factories closed down. The K-Mart closed down. The dairy went out of business. The city schools got smaller and smaller, poorer and poorer. The main thoroughfare grew into a tour of empty businesses. People told their kids that if they had any sense they'd get the hell out of Hot Springs as soon as they could and go make themselves some money somewhere else.
From the time I saw that boy get shot in the face until the day I left Hot Springs for good, I knew four different kids who got locked up for murder. A couple of them were just nuts. One of them helped a kid kill his parents for money to fix his truck. Another one had slept over at my house a few nights before he killed someone with a baseball bat. He was 15 years old. It got so it seemed like normal life. Only through the eyes of other people did I start to see how fucked up it all was.
Once my family moved to Hot Springs to write The Vapors I could see Hot Springs through the eyes of my wife and kids. I could see things that were incongruous, odd, inexplicable, that I took as normal for so much of my life. I had to explain the massive, empty buildings all over town, or why the schools celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert E. Lee's birthdays on the same day or why none of the other kids in my daughter’s class drew dads on their family portraits.
But I also noticed a lot had changed since the days when I lived there. It was still an eclectic place, but it wasn’t the same place I grew up. Downtown wasn't scary anymore. In fact, it was probably the most lively part of the city, with people moving there and new businesses thriving. There were crowds on the street downtown until the wee hours of the morning on weekends, crawling the bars and restaurants and hotels and having a grand old time. There were young and creative people moving there, rebuilding a cultural community that had always been a part of the city’s lifeblood.
Rather than losing people who fled Hot Springs in search of better jobs in other states, there were transplants from other states moving in and starting businesses, starting families, and seeing the place for what it was—a city on the rise. And the community was working together to build Hot Springs back into the kind of place that could welcome millions of visitors and attract thousands of new families as it did in its heyday. The amusement park reopened and expanded. There were new high-rise hotels springing up in place of the old and empty ones. My family got to vote on a tax increase that created over $50 million in revenue for the city schools, a district that had been absolutely decimated by several decades of despicable racist white flight. Already that money has been used to build schools that will be the envy of the entire state and turn the tide away from white flight and bring families back across the line, back into the heart of the city again.
Everyone we met in Hot Springs told us the story about when they first came to visit, how they fell in love with not only the city’s unique character, but also the city’s potential to become something great. They told us about how they realized there was a place for them there, and how they could take chances in Hot Springs they couldn't anywhere else. The thing that struck me about all of those conversations was that those people weren't from Hot Springs. They missed those dark days. There are a lot of folks who expatriated to Hot Springs from somewhere else, saw the city with fresh eyes, and set to digging in the dirt to excavate something new and beautiful. Their project is ongoing. I’m happy I got to bear witness to it even for a short time.
Despite all of this, there still remained poverty, violence, the jagged edges of the fringe on all sides of us. Flannery O’Connor once wrote: “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. ”
Within the first month of my family moving to Hot Springs, two young men opened fire on a car full of people a couple of blocks from my mother’s house, shooting five people. I say this not to be alarming, just as I didn’t tell you about the city’s promise to be cloying. I'm telling you this because we can’t tell a nice story and erase the evil. You can fight it by attacking its root causes, by trying to build a community that celebrates the absence of it, by rejecting Satan and all his works. Still the devil lurks there beneath the hollow eyes of evil men. He’s down there in Hot Springs and he’s up here in New York City. The only difference is there he’s closer, more familiar. They say better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. And in Hot Springs, Arkansas, there’s hardly any devils everybody don’t already know.
David Hill is the author of the new book The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.