Uncle (First Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

Uncle always lived in the other house. By himself. When he was younger, before I was born, he was a truck driver. Then he was a drummer for a while with a band called Texas Red. Then he got married but his wife left him after three years. Then he got sick and had to stay in a looney bin for a while. When he got out, he moved into the other house on Mama’s property. Ten miles outside of Glenville, in southern Indiana. He stayed holed up in the other house, most of the time, in his bedroom that smelled like a man’s armpit.

When I was in sixth grade, Uncle took me to the pasture where the cows grazed when my Grandpa was still alive and showed me how to shoot his rifle. He taught me how to load in the cartridges and aim and shoot. I pulled the trigger four times before I hit a beer can off the fence post. Uncle whooped and kicked the toe of his boot in the dirt when I did that. He took the gun from me, reloaded it, and handed it back to me.

Smiling he said, “Now shoot me, Stacy.”

He thumped himself on the chest and said, “Aim right here baby girl. Shoot me out of my misery.”

I laughed at him and I heard Mama calling for me, so I handed him back the gun. I thought he was teasing me. I was sure that first time, he was just teasing. He told me we’d do target practice again sometime, but when I told Mama about it, she said no, no more target practice because she wasn’t sure if he was still taking his meds, so we never did.

Sometimes, at night, Uncle would put on his clodhopper boots and light a kerosene lantern and leash up Porter, Mama’s hound dog, and take his gun and Porter up into the thirty-seven-acre woods that grew behind Mama’s house and partly behind his. Sometimes in the morning, there’d be a raccoon, skinned and cleaned and floating headless, in a big pot of cold salt water on Mama’s covered porch. Sometimes he left Porter behind and went up alone. On those times, I could hear him shooting in the woods so late at night that the moon was already to the other side of the sky.

Uncle drank Johnny Walker sometimes and when he was drunk, he didn’t want nobody to come to his house. I’m the one who brought him his breakfast. I’d walk it over, set it on the kitchen counter and yell at him to come down for his breakfast. I’d collect the dishes from the morning before, but when he was heavy drinking, he called Mama on the phone and told her not to send no motherfucking eggs and bacon over because he’s sick of being poisoned by her cooking and she was just a half-sister know nothing bitch.

Mama took the breakfast over herself on those days and made him get out of bed and clean his stinky, drunk ass up. I would go with her, trailing behind like a puppy dog, as she marched the loaded tray over to his door. Mama would get his pills out of the bathroom, shake them into her hand and run him a glass of tap water. While he was taking the pills, Mama took the cartridges from his rifle that sat catty-corner by his refrigerator on those days too, because she said she don’t want to have to clean Uncle’s brains off the greasy walls.

That way of living, that breakfast routine, that coon hunting, went on for a while. From the time I was nine years old until I was thirteen.

One day, Uncle yelled down at me to bring the breakfast up to him and not leave it on the kitchen counter. I never did that before and was a little nervous of what I might find up there in the dark dust at the top of the stairs. I walked it up and left it at the door of his bedroom, then ran down. I feared Uncle because sometimes he yelled cusswords and he had that gun that Mama said she wish he didn’t have but if she took it from him, he’d just call his old drinking buddy, Curtis, to drive him to Junior’s to buy another one. Uncle got a disability check, and he didn’t use it for nothing but to call Curtis to give him a ride to town to buy whiskey and sometimes gave the check to Mama for his groceries or when she needed to pay his phone bill or the property taxes.

Next morning, Uncle told me to bring the breakfast up to him again. I did, and I was fixing to leave it at the bedroom door when Uncle jerked open the bedroom door and stood there with no shirt on, wearing a pair of old jeans, cut off at the knee. Uncle was pale and skinny, and his chest was curved in a little. Uncle smelled terrible, like he just burped up whiskey and blew his breath into the air.

“Bring that tray on in here Stacy and set it down on the nightstand there.”

I wasn’t sure if I should, but he was smiling a little and he seemed normal acting.  I went on in and set the tray down. I tried not to crinkle up my nose at the stinky smell coming from the bed.

“Look what I did to that microwave, Stacy,” Uncle said. He pointed to his broken up dented microwave that was on top of his clothes dresser.  I looked at it, nodded and fast-walked out of the bedroom and down the stairs.

When I got to the bottom of the staircase, I yelled up to Uncle. “Mama wants you to take your meds.”

He shouted down at me. “Tell your Mama I don’t need no meds. I ain’t crazy. And I taught that coon dog to fly. He can fly now, Stacy. Porter can fly. I’m not dreaming, I taught him. High enough to get in them trees and catch a raccoon. Tell your mom she’s got a special dog.”

I went to the kitchen and picked up the tray of dishes from the morning before and high tailed it back to Mama’s house. I turned to look at Uncle’s house just once. Uncle was watching me from out the bedroom window.

Next day, when I brought over his breakfast, he didn’t say anything. Didn’t yell down the stairs, didn’t look out the window when I walked back to Mama’s.

The day after that was the same and then the same again. Uncle went hunting that second night and, in the morning, Mama found a raccoon floating in water on the covered porch.

On my thirteenth birthday, Mama called Uncle and asked if he wanted us to bring over a slice of birthday cake. After a long quiet conversation, Uncle must have said yes, because Mama hung up the phone, cut a big slice of chocolate cake and put it on a paper plate. Mama was crying while she did this. It was a silent cry. Tears but no sobbing.

“Mama,” I said. “It’s okay. You ain’t seen Uncle for a long time now, he’ll be happy to see you.”

“Yeah, I know. He just makes me sad, though. When I go over there, he always has to argue with me. He’s run out of his meds and won’t let me take him to the doctor for the refills.”

She ran her hand over the top of her head like she was checking to see if it was still there.

“I’ll just put the cake in the kitchen and leave.”

This was different to me, not the routine. Not different in a good way but I can’t figure out why it seemed wrong. It wasn’t usually what happened. I usually carried eggs and toast and bacon and coffee in the early morning. Now Mama was carrying birthday cake in the afternoon.

She took the plate of cake and walked on to Uncle’s house. I went behind her. I saw a movement at Uncle’s window, when I looked up directly, the curtains waved a little like Uncle had been looking and just dropped them back down.

When we got close to the house, Uncle came out naked, with his man stuff hanging out for us to see. He had his gun.

“Happy Birthday, Stacy,” Uncle said, and he grabbed the cake from Mama at the same time he handed me his rifle.

“Reckon you’re old enough now. I don’t have any presents for you so I’m giving you my rifle. Okay?”

I didn’t want his rifle, but I didn’t know how to say no to Uncle, so I took it.

Back to Mama he said, “I’m tired of you using your microwave oven to read my thoughts. And… and I know what goes on in them microwaves. You’re just trying to get proof to send me back to the looney bin, so you can have all the land and my house. I’m not crazy. And I lost your dog. I’m sorry about that. He just flew away, and I can’t find him nowhere.”

“Thank you,” I said loudly, interrupting his rant. I ran the rifle back to the house, while Mama stood and argued with him.

When she came back, I handed her the rifle and she took out the cartridges and put them in the kitchen drawer, then carried the gun down to the basement. Mama hid it behind a rolled-up carpet in the corner by the meat freezer.

Next thing I know, Mama is calling Uncle and continuing the argument about coming outside with no clothes on and giving a loaded rifle to her daughter. Mama told him there is no way to use a microwave oven to get into his brain and that he needs to get back on his meds. Mama said if he ever does anything crazy like that again, she’ll call the sheriff to take him back to the psycho hospital, where he belongs.

In the morning, Mama made him scrambled eggs and biscuits and she took them over herself. Mama said she wanted to apologize for her angry conversation the night before and talk Uncle into letting her take him back to the doctor. Mama only stayed a short time and when she came back, her face was red, and her mouth was in a frown.

Uncle was gone from the house. And Porter was gone too. Mama walked up to the edge of the trees, hoping to see Uncle coming out from the woods. When evening came, Mama waited inside her house, listening all night for a holler from Uncle or a coon dog howl from Porter, and watching out the kitchen window for any sign of Uncle or Porter. When morning came, Mama called the sheriff.

After an hour or so, a brown and tan sheriff’s car pulled into the driveway. Sheriff got out and walked around with Mama looking for clues, I guess, or something. Mama walked the sheriff up to Uncle’s house. They went inside, and I heard Mama yelling then she screamed, and I heard two shots.

Uncle ran outside naked and came running toward Mama’s house. I went quick down to the basement and got my birthday rifle. I ran back up to the kitchen and opened the drawer where Mama hid the cartridges.

By that time, Uncle was on the front porch, with his hand on the door handle. When he opened the door, I raised the rifle. I pointed it straight at his face. Uncle just froze, stood there looking at the end of the rifle, then back at me.

“Shoot me, Stacy, because I just killed your mama and that fat ass sheriff with his own gun.”

My hands went weak when I heard that and I wavered for a moment, but I brought the rifle back up and held it firm.

“Come on, do it, baby girl. Shoot me out of my misery.”

“Why’d you kill Mama?” I screamed.

“It’s your birthday and I wanted to give you something to remember.”

He cried then, tears running down his cheeks, face turning red. I was crying too, but I held the rifle aimed steady at his face.

“That’s a lie, Stacy. I didn’t want to kill nobody, but I don’t want to go back to the looney bin. Microwaves are puttin my thoughts out there so everybody can say I’m crazy.”

Uncle backed away, ran out the front door. Ran back into his house and came out with a set of keys. Uncle got into the sheriff’s brown and tan and backed out of the driveway, squealing tires, and kicking up gravel. I called 911 and soon I see one state police car pull into Mama’s driveway and two other police cars speeding on. A helicopter passed above, and I knew they were chasing Uncle.

A moment later, I saw Porter. He was flying behind the helicopter. His long hound ears were flapping like hummingbird wings. He dipped and bumped through the air but stayed dangerously close to the helicopter. I was scared for him. I called for him to come down, but he didn’t hear me.

I am an African American writer who started seriously focusing on writing fiction in the late twentieth century. I was published in literary magazines such as North Atlantic Review, The Crucible, Buffalo Spree, and Punchnel’s. In 2000, I won second place in the Ohio Valley Fiction Contest. I became interested in other things and didn’t start writing again until 2013. Since then, I’ve had some success. In 2017, I won the grand prize in a one-act play contest, presented by the 30XNinety theatre in Mandeville, a suburb of New Orleans. In March 2019, I won the Etchings Press annual competition for novellas. I was second runner-up in the Daisy Pettles writer-in-residence competition in May 2020. I was named as an honoree in the Emerging Author category for the Indiana Author’s Awards in September 2020. This year in April, I was named as one of ten finalists for the SAG/INDIE Screenwriting Fellowship. I did not win. Durn it.  In May, my story, “Savonne, Not Vonny,” was named as a semi-finalist for the Chanticleer International Book Awards (CIBA) program for short stories and novelettes.