fiction, poetry & more


by William Matthew McCarter 

Jake and I were playing in our room as the sweet scent of a gentle, summer rain streamed in through the window. It mingled with the scent of Gram frying hamburgers in the kitchen. Gram made the best hamburgers that I had ever tasted. She used fresh ground beef from the IGA, coarse black pepper, and a little bit of this magical red salt. As the patties were frying in the pan, Gram added a piece of Velveeta cheese and then the hamburger buns. After that, she would steam the buns in the skillet by placing a lid on the top. When she took them off of the stove, she would top them off with dill pickles and a thick slice of Vidalia onion.

Big Daddy had been in the kitchen watching the ball game most of the afternoon. Jake and I heard him cussing a couple of times, so we figured that the Cardinals must be losing. While Big Daddy was watching the ball game and Gram was throwing some frozen potatoes into her Fry Daddy, Jake and I made a startling discovery: if you touched a walkie talkie to a television antenna and keyed the mic, it caused the screen to go crazy and messed up the reception. Before we had much of an opportunity to put this new knowledge to work for us and explore how it could possibly change our world, Gram called us for dinner.

Jake and I joined Big Daddy in the kitchen and sat down in our usual places around the table. Big Daddy gave the blessing and then we all said, “Amen,” made the sign of the cross and dug in.

“The Cardinals lost,” Big Daddy said as he took a bite of his hamburger. After he chewed for awhile and swallowed, he added, “to the goddamned Cubs. It was humiliating. On national television—the Game of the Week.”

Jake looked at me and I looked at him. We weren’t sure whether we should ask Big Daddy about the game or just keep our mouths shut. Finally, Jake said, “What happened?”

“The Cardinals were winning through the whole damn game. The score was 9-8 in the bottom of the ninth and we had Sutter on the mound. I thought it was over at that point, but like Yogi Berra says, ‘It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.’ Then Ryne Sandberg stepped up to the plate and hit a home run and tied the damn game.”

Big Daddy stopped to take another bite out of his hamburger and chewed it up before he continued his story. “We got the lead again in the tenth and then Sutter gave up another home run to Sandberg in the bottom of the tenth. The Cubs scored another run in the eleventh and beat us.”

Jake and I hurried through dinner so that we could resume our experiment with the walkie- talkies. Once again, it messed up the picture on the little television in our bedroom, making this new revelation more than just phenomenon—it was a natural law. We took the walkie-talkies outside and tried it on the radio that we kept on the patio. As we listened to the garbled sounds of KREB, laughing hysterically as a sad country song was overcome by what sounded like an explosion, an idea came to me. I looked at Jake and he looked at me, then we both smiled. I was sure that he was thinking what I was thinking and when ideas came to us like that, it was almost supernatural—like, a gift from some mythical force. Two things were certain when ideas came to us like that: they were really cool ideas and we were sure to get in trouble for carrying them out.

I wanted to make sure that this divine inspiration from the trouble fairy was correct, so I repeated it out loud, just checking to make sure that Jake was, in fact, thinking what I was thinking. “Today’s Saturday, right?” I asked as I looked at Jake and smiled. “Yeah,” he replied, “and we all know what happens on Saturday nights.” This let me know that he, in fact, was thinking what I was thinking and that the trouble fairy had infected us with divine inspiration. The only real price of admission to our adventure was a little man inside of me who kept elbowing me in the colon, telling me, “Don’t do it.” But, Jake and I had to put our plan into motion. We really didn’t have much of a choice at this point. We had thought the idea up collectively and to turn back now would mean to ignore the supernatural inspiration of the trouble fairy. It was a matter of fate so we began to execute our plan and apply this newly discovered knowledge in a practical manner.

A small field separated our place from Uncle Fred and Aunt Irene’s and there was some undergrowth that surrounded their place like nature’s barbed wire. This would make the perfect staging ground for our little assault on the Fred Plantation. In addition to the undergrowth providing us with the necessary cover that we needed, Gram’s cornbread voodoo—her way of knowing just exactly what we were up to—got a little weaker after we crossed the boundaries of our own yard. I suppose we could have played this trick on Gram and Big Daddy, but it wouldn’t be nearly as funny as it was going to be when we did it to Uncle Fred.

Uncle Fred and Aunt Jean weren’t our real aunt and uncle exactly. They were distant relatives—what we called “branch kin.” Big Daddy used to call Uncle Fred “Freddie the Freeloader” when we were younger, but when Jake and I started calling Uncle Fred that, Big Daddy just called him Fred. Sometimes he would get pissed off at Uncle Fred and then he would just say, “That son of a bitch borrowed my ladder and still hasn’t brought it back,” or some other generic term to help express his contempt. There always seemed to be an ongoing feud between someone in the family— sometimes it was Aunt Irene and her sisters, sometimes it was Big Daddy and Uncle Fred. Isn’t it kind of funny how you’ll do to kin what you wouldn’t dream of doing to normal people?

Jake snuck around the back of Uncle Fred’s house and got the ladder that he kept next to his garage. Quietly, he placed it against Uncle Fred’s house and climbed up on the roof so he could get to the TV antenna. I snuck up to the picture window so I could see into the living room. Totally unaware of us lurking just outside in the darkness, Uncle Fred sat in his easy chair, sipping on a cup of coffee that was no doubt spiked with some brandy that he affectionately called “Sweet Lucy,” and tapped his feet to the sound of Buck Owens and Roy Clark singing on Hee Haw. Uncle Fred loved country music. He thought Hank Williams was a prophet, Elvis was a saint, and Porter Wagoner was the sequined Shakespeare of Southeast Missouri.

I stood by the side of the picture window at Uncle Fred’s house with a flashlight key chain that Gram had given me awhile back and flashed the light a few times giving Jake the signal. After Jake saw the light flash, he hit the TV antenna with the walkie-talkie. I almost pissed myself when Uncle Fred nearly jumped up out of his chair. Jake couldn’t even see what happened, but when he saw me laughing at Uncle Fred, he started laughing, too, just because he imagined what it looked like and nearly fell off the roof.

“Shhhhh,” I said to Jake, reminding him that we couldn’t laugh out loud or else the jig would be up.

I looked in the window and saw Uncle Fred fiddling with the knobs on the TV and started laughing all over again. He got the picture to come back in crystal clear and having taken care of whatever had been ailing ole Buck and Roy, he sat back down in the easy chair and picked up his Sweet Lucy. I gave Jake the signal again and poor ole Uncle Fred didn’t even have time to start tapping his feet before the screen became unintelligible. Once again, Jake and I erupted in laughter. I wished we had discovered this little known trick sooner because it sure came in handy.

Uncle Fred jumped up out of the chair and started fiddling with the knobs again, and once again Jake and I were laughing uncontrollably. Finally, Uncle Fred dialed the TV back in the way it was when he started fiddling with it and sat back down in the chair and picked up Sweet Lucy. I looked in on him and saw that they had gone to a commercial break while he was fiddling so Jake and I just sat there for a while. Messing up a Charmin commercial didn’t seem like all that much fun anyway.

Finally, Hee Haw was back on and Misty Rowe was wearing a real low cut dress and her titties were bouncing around while she played her usual dumb blonde routine in front of the cornfield backdrop. I watched her cleavage ebb and flow and dreamed that someday I would have a dumb blonde like Misty Rowe out behind the corncrib and get to watch her titties bounce around up close and personal. Slowly, I held up the flashlight and gave Jake the signal again. This was perfect—I couldn’t imagine anything that could piss a guy off more than missing out on Misty Rowe bouncing her titties on Hee Haw.

This time, Uncle Fred didn’t fiddle with the TV. He just set Sweet Lucy down on the coffee table and walked straight past the television and out the front door. Suddenly, I felt as if I had just been splashed with a pan of cold well water. Jake and I had a plan for what were going to do with the walkie-talkies but neither of us considered the possibility that Uncle Fred would think there was something wrong with the antenna on the house and come outside. I don’t know why we didn’t figure he would think there was something wrong with the antenna outside—after all we were the one’s doing something to it—but we didn’t and there was nowhere for us to run to when Uncle Fred walked off of his porch and to the side of the house. We were busted.

“What the hell are you doin’ out here?” Uncle Fred said. He gave me a look that suggested my very existence was an affront to the natural order of the universe. I guessed it was an affront to the natural order of the universe if that natural order consisted of watching Hee Haw and sipping on Sweet Lucy.

Thoughts raced through my mind like legions of soldiers rushing into battle. There must have been something I could have said to get us out of this one. Quick, Billy…think…There must be something…It wasn’t us, Uncle Fred… There is another…in black pajamas…on the grassy knoll…Use the force, Billy…Luke, I am your father…I thought of everything all at once and yet nothing at the same time. I wanted to say something—anything—but everything I thought of saying just seemed really dumb. My mind was as scrambled as Uncle Fred’s television had been and I couldn’t stop it.

There was no way out of this and nothing left for us to do but surrender. Every war had its casualties and every victory had its price. Sabotaging Hee Haw was a small victory in our ongoing war with Uncle Fred and now it was time for us to experience the casualties of war and pay the price.

Uncle Fred rounded us up, took us home and, slowly, without smiling, he told Gram all about our escapade. While he was talking to Gram, I was thinking about where Jake and I went wrong. We should have just quit while we were ahead. However, that one last opportunity to mess up Uncle Fred’s view of Misty Rowe was just too much of a temptation to overcome. Besides that, I thought, Jake and I both knew that we would keep doing it until we got caught or it wasn’t funny anymore. We knew this was going to happen, so we braced ourselves for the consequences. I figured we’d either get the switch or Gram would yell at us.

I knew that Gram was going to yell at us when she looked at Uncle Fred and said, “I tried to teach them boys respect but it just never took. It just slid right off of them like they was covered in bacon grease.”

After Uncle Fred left, Gram went straight up, turned left, and nearly caught fire. “I ought to skin you alive,” she said. “I don’t know why you boys have always got to be doing stuff to your Uncle Fred.”

Gram grabbed a hold of us and set us down at the kitchen table. By then, I was sure she was going to lecture us. I guess it was too dark for her to try and cut a switch off the tree or she just didn’t feel like it, but if we were going to get the switch, she would have walked over to the cherry tree before she grabbed us. I didn’t like the switch, but sometimes I thought the lectures were worse because Gram could make us feel as guilty as sin. Sometimes she would even tear up and cry a little bit while she was talking and that brought the shame to us quicker than anything.

“You boys make me mad enough to go bear hunting with a switch, pulling your shenanigans all the time,” she began. “Jake, I’d send you back up to your dad right here and now if he wasn’t going through a divorce and working all the time.”

I looked at Jake and he looked at me. We knew that despite all of the fun we had with Uncle Fred, we were going to feel lower than a rat turd in a root cellar by the time Gram was finished with us.

“And you,” she said, pointing at me, “I’d send you off too, if I had a place to send you, but you ain’t got nowhere to go,” hinting that I should be a little more grateful that she and Big Daddy took me to raise and not be getting into trouble all of the time.

Gram was off to a good start on her lecture. She was never one to mince words anyway, so she just moved in for the kill right away and then kept on chewing from there. She made us feel as if we were just a couple of rotten kids and she was a saint for looking out for us. I think the reason her lectures hurt so bad was because there was an awful lot of truth in them.

“Now,” she asked, “do you have anything to say for yourselves?” I looked at Jake and Jake looked at me. We felt the guilt crash down like a tidal wave threatening to drown us.

“I’m sorry, Gram,” Jake said. Quickly, I followed with my own apology.

Gram accepted our apology and then said, “Now, go to bed.”

“But Gram, it’s early,” Jake said.

“I don’t care. If you boys are asleep, you can’t get into anything. Now go to bed.”

We were so overcome with remorse and regret that we gave up on having any more fun ever. When we said our prayers, both of us asked the Lord for wisdom, guidance, and all of the other things that He hadn’t seen fit to grant us yet. We couldn’t sleep for the longest time. Mostly, we just looked at each other and then stared at the ceiling, thinking about all the things that Gram had said to us, realizing that there was a dark spot on our soul and that there was a cancer inside us, eating away at the very things that Gram had tried to teach us over the years. We would never become the fine young men that she had envisioned, we were destined to be hoodlums and forever disappoint and torment her for as long as we lived.

Finally, after the ten o’clock news was over and Big Daddy turned off the television, we could hear Gram and Big Daddy talking about us and our escapade with Uncle Fred. Big Daddy was laughing about it and told Gram that it was pretty clever of us to come up with such a plan. That’s when I realized what grandpas were for: Grandpas were supposed to teach you about things like checking out the chicks at the grocery store and fun things to do like playing pranks on the neighbors. Grandpas were all about baseball, dirty jokes and fun things like that.

I supposed that was the difference between Big Daddy and Gram. Big Daddy was a grandpa to the fullest extent of the definition, but Gram, she had to be so much more than that. Gram had to be a parent of sorts because I didn’t have any parental figures in my life; she had to be that guardian angel— that person in your life that helped you find your way when you strayed off the path and I was glad that she was, because if anyone needed a guardian angel, it was me. Listening to them talk and Big Daddy having a laugh about it all, seemed to lift away a layer of guilt that I had felt after Gram’s crippling lecture.

The house grew quiet after that and the crickets, katydids and the other little creatures of the night seemed to be singing Jake and I a lullaby just outside the open window. I looked over and Jake had fallen off to sleep; his conscience, apparently, was absolved long before mine. I, then, continued reflecting on the day’s events, weighing them on the scales of life and trying to understand how all of it fit together in the grand scheme of things. It was my favorite time of the night—that time, just before you fell off to sleep, when the muses of the soul seemed to bloom and blossom like a dogwood in the spring.


William Matthew McCarter’s book, “Homo Redneckus: On Being Not Qwhite in America,” was published this year. A college professor from Southeast Missouri, he writes and publishes work that brings attention to his native rural America. Recent creative work can be found in journals such as A Few Lines, Stellaria, and Midwestern Gothic.