William Matthew McCarter is a Literature professor and writer from Southeast Missouri He lives in the foothills of the Ozarks with his family. McCarter published his dissertation, “Homo Redneckus: On Being Not Qwhite in America,” in 2012 with Agora. McCarter also co-edited an anthology of fiction called Trash Told Tales: An Anthology of White Trash Literature. McCarter’s fiction has been published in Midwestern Gothic, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and Fried Chicken and Coffee. In addition to his fiction, McCarter has also published academic work in St. John’s Review, Americana, and The British Journal of American Studies. McCarter is very proud of his rural heritage and often writes about rural America, in both his fiction and his academic work.

“A Piankashaw Lunch”

The sky looked like it might snow but just didn’t give a shit.  Everything seemed eternally dreary and dismal – damned, even. The weather was insolent and bitchy, like it was on its winter rag.  The streets were bare and nothing stirred on this cold winter afternoon, except for the frigid wind whipping around the old buildings on the square. I walked past the old cannons parked out in front of the equally old courthouse by the war memorial. Every time I passed the memorial, I was always amazed that folks from Piankashaw have been fighting in wars since the Civil War. You’d have thought that after looking at the plaque in front of the courthouse with all of those names on it, that we’d just quit fightin’ any wars.  You’d think that we’d have learned our lesson the first time. I imagined that there would be more names on that plaque before it was all said and done. The country couldn’t stop creating wars any more than young men from Piankashaw couldn’t stop fighting them. The government never walked away from a fight and neither did the kids we send to fight them.

I had to smile at our little postage stamp of the State of Missouri. Piankashaw, the county seat, with its silly pride over still having Yankee musket balls in the pillars of the brickwork of the courthouse and the Civil War Battlefield down the road a piece, and the old college for wayward school girls out on the highway that wound up being a real nunnery after the school folded up, because the school couldn’t make it. I guess Jesus sells better than education way out here. Around the square we had the computer repair shop, the drug store, the hardware store, the dentist, a liquor store, a couple of empty storefronts, and a bail bondsman’s office. Essentially, the whole damn town looked like a faded portrait of the background for a Norman Rockwell print. The town square was all too familiar, even if you had never seen it before. It was as familiar as a background can be. All my memories and these trivial images from an America that had never really happened, except via simulacrum, floated by me in a soup of the past.

I had been gone for nearly a decade.  What was left of the town that I grew up in was slowly dying off.  The only thing that seemed to be staving off this steady decay was the growing tourist trade, especially agri-tourism.  Who would have thought that our little piece of the Lord’s own playground (as the radio announcers liked to call it) would be ideal for growing grapes? Who would have thought that we had our very own Napa Valley going on right here in Southeast Missouri? As a result of this new found resource, Piankashaw was working hard to accommodate the growing tourist trade and was trying to appeal to folks from St. Louis who had moved down here to retire and live the country life. This sometimes put the native Piankashites and the transplants at odds with one another. I hadn’t really made up my mind about the influx of city folks transplanting themselves into our community, but I could tell you that neither I nor any of the folks who wanted to see our community thrive minded all that money that they brought with them to help keep our downtown alive and possibly help it thrive once again.

Edmond’s Law Office, the cornerstone of the town square for nearly 50 years, was gone. A stained glass window shop had taken its place. They named it The Glass Factory, but it didn’t look like much of a factory to me. One of the problems of shifting from an economy based on mining or factory work to agri-tourism is that places like The Glass Factory don’t employ a lot of people. One of the challenges of living in small-town America is that everyone has got to be an entrepreneur, now. Everyone has got to sell himself and then sell some kind of product. And if you can’t – well, then you’ve got to get some kind of government job or be a part of the welfare state. My old home town was becoming a lot like the rest of America, in terms of the haves and have-nots. The “haves” bought stained glass and high-priced coffacinos and the “have-nots” – well, I guess they shopped at the Save A Lot with food stamps and made their own coffee.

The architecture of the old buildings on the square was interesting. In our American pragmatism, we built the facades in a very utilitarian fashion. It looked a lot like the Old West, except the buildings were brick. A few years back, my cousin Roscoe had tuck pointed all the buildings on this side of the square.  That was one of the interesting things about the new Piankashaw – you didn’t see Piankashaw’s underclass shopping for stained glass or drinking double half-caf coffacinos, but the fingerprints of a whole lot of working people were all over the place. And still, those who actually did the bulk of the work in the town – or at least the hard work – were somehow obscured by those who held more prominent positions in the town hierarchy. My grandpa, Big Daddy, used to say that behind every official narrative of history is another layer that no one talks about or even wants you to know about.  He called it the scoundrels’ version of history.

Walking down the sidewalk on the square on a cold winter’s day, with the stained glass gleaming like phosphorescent talismans, I couldn’t help but remember at least one scoundrel’s remembrance of the past as I neared the mirrored door to “Cool Beans,” Piankashaw’s answer to Starbucks.  Long before “Cool Beans” was the Piankashaw Starbucks, it was a beer joint. When I was in my teens and early twenties and when I was more of a scoundrel, I regularly played music in the old beer joint. In fact, my first gig was at the “Piankashaw Bar.”  That’s what they called it back then. I guess when you sell Budweiser instead of double half-caf coffacinos, you don’t have to dress up the name and call it “Booze on the Square” or any of that shit.

When I opened the door and walked in, I saw that they still had the old bar in the place. I sat down in an almost mindless motion and I could almost see the old bartender, “Pops,” standing at the other end of the bar, reading the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Soon, a middle aged woman came out of the back, her face stiff enough to iron canvas on.

“What can I get you,” she asked from across the room. I detected a bit of a syrupy Southern accent in her voice. However, she didn’t have that submissive undertone that one usually hears in a Southern accent. Hers had an edge of sarcasm to it.

“I’ll take a large cup of coffee, black, and a menu,” I said.

“Here’s your menu,” she said, handing me a laminated piece of computer paper, “and I’ll be right back with your coffee.”

As she walked away, I wondered about the accent. Either she was a transplant from the city and just picked up the accent over time or she was from one of those New South towns that the Yankees took over a long time ago – Atlanta, maybe. I couldn’t really tell. When I looked at the menu and saw the selection of pizza toppings, my suspicions were confirmed. She had to be from Atlanta by way of California. The menu was chock full of those perverted California pizzas, where shit like artichokes and broccoli were disguised as pizza toppings. Now, you can cram shit like that in a pita with Velveeta cheese or stick it in a Hot Pocket and get away with it. I can’t imagine why you would want to, but you could do it. However, none of that shit belongs within a hundred miles of a pizza. Pizza is one of the staples of the great American diet. It is a very simple bastardized American formula: crust, red sauce, and cheese. You can get a little fancy with it by adding meat toppings, if you’d like, but shit from the vegetable kingdom is strictly limited to mushrooms, peppers, onions, and olives. Any attempt to go beyond this and try to make pizza more exotic or, God forbid, healthy, is an abomination. It’s like trying to add a couple of extra books to the Bible. You just don’t do it.

“Here’s your coffee,” Ms. Atlanta said, “Our special today is black-eyed pea salad. It’s got green peppers and red onions in it and all of the flavors go really good together.”

“I think I’ll just have a ham sandwich with the potato chips,” I said, thinking to myself that the black-eyed pea salad did sound good but that I didn’t want to find out if they could fuck up soul food as bad as it appeared that they did pizza.

Suddenly, Ms. Atlanta lifted her head up a little and sniffed the air like a beagle scenting a rabbit. “Be right back,” she said, “the croissants are burning.”

I opened up my laptop and got on to the network. I hadn’t checked my e-mail in a couple of days and wondered what was waiting for me in my inbox. Either they didn’t have enough bandwidth on this Piankashaw Wi-Fi or there was an entire room full of illegal aliens working in a call center in the basement, because the internet was slower than smoke rolling off dog shit in December. After what seemed like an eternity (at least in Wi-Fi terms), I got to my inbox. The first thing I noticed was an e-mail from my friend, Shawn. The e-mail was a testimonial about how Shawn had grown a huge penis from using this male enhancement product. Shawn’s e-mail had been hacked. I seriously doubted that this testimonial had any merit because Shawn was a girl and I don’t think she would be proud of the fact that she had suddenly grown a huge penis as a result of this male enhancement product. I hit “reply” and wrote “Shawn: Your e-mail has been hacked. Either that or you Googled yourself without lubricant.”

After sifting through some other junk mail, where I could learn how to buy my prescription drugs online or learn how the economy was going to tank and I needed to be invested in gold, I was relieved to find that I didn’t have any pressing work that I needed to do right away. I also got an e-mail from the real estate agent that I had been working with. There was a house out on Possum Holler Lake that she wanted me to look at. I logged off the network, closed my laptop, and called her. We set up an appointment for later that day. Just as I hung up the phone, Ms. Atlanta brought my sandwich out to me and topped off my coffee. “This week’s paper is on the bar if you are interested,” she said before disappearing back into the land of burning croissants and broccoli pizza.

I opened up the old birdcage liner that was affectionately known as The Piankashaw Journal. This was the quintessential small town newspaper. For all the years that I lived away from Piankashaw, I subscribed to the paper so that I could stay on top of all of the news in my hometown. The top story this week was one of small town scandal. The chief of police in the city of Pine Bluff, a town on the south end of the county, was fired from his job for stealing. Apparently, the volunteer fire department in Pine Bluff had surveillance cameras in the garage where the trucks and equipment were kept. I remembered seeing something in the paper about them being given grants for the cameras a while back. Apparently, the police chief must have had a bad night and felt that he needed a beer because the cameras caught him taking beer out of the fridge that was in the fire department. The paper didn’t say how much beer he took or even why there was beer in the fire department fridge in the first place. However, it did print that the chief said that he was certain that he would be cleared of all the charges when he went to trial and that the firing was politically motivated. It also reported that the police chief still had his other job as a deputy sheriff and that the sheriff’s department had no intention of removing him from the position until after the trial.

Most of the remaining news on the first few pages was limited to when the Chamber of Commerce was planning on meeting, the minutes from County Commission meeting, and that sort of thing. However, there was a lengthy Letter to the Editor that did grab my attention:

Dear Editor:

I am addressing this letter to the individuals who have been defecating in Possum Holler Lake.

My family and I bought a weekend bungalow out on Possum Holler Lake and we really enjoy using the lake in the summer. It is a pristine lake, with clear water, and provides us with a natural setting to enjoy the outdoors. We like to swim on both sides of the dam, as well as on our pontoon boat and from our dock.

On two occasions last year, we have been evacuated from the water by the arrival of an unmistakable log of human feces floating on the surface. We noticed the log floating only inches away from the location where our children had been spitting water at one another a few moments earlier.

At first, we tried to deny what we saw and chose not to accept the fact that we were swimming in someone else’s toilet but we are now resolved to leave the scene due to the potential health risks. Our chocolate lab confirmed our suspicions about said log when he tasted it, carried it ashore, and then proceeded to roll all over it.

Needless to say, Bonkers was not welcome in our car when it was time to drive home.

I genuinely hope that we are the only family to have seen these nasty logs in the lake, but I am sure that we aren’t. This is why I am writing this letter to the local newspaper. If you have experienced something similar to this, please contact us at the newspaper office. We are collecting narratives to turn over to the Department of Natural Resources.

We are fearful that there is some leaky septic system that is the culprit for these logs in the lake.  However, the residents who take care of the water system assure us that is not the case.  According to them, people are pooping in the lake.

If this is true, please, please do not poop in our lake.  We understand that “it” happens, but suggest that you allow it to happen on the shore, under a rock, or in a hole. Don’t let these logs float in the lake, so that someone’s children mistake them for a stick and pick it up or swim into it.

Don’t ruin Possum Holler Lake for us.  Be respectful and be humane.

I was sure this must have been some kind of prank.  I have never seen anything like that in a newspaper in my life. I laughed so hard, I nearly pulled a Mama Cass and choked on my ham sandwich. I didn’t know if it was true or not, but was determined to show it to the real estate agent when I went to meet her later on that day. Surely, these logs were worth a few thousand off the asking price of the house that she found for me.