Gram’s Cornbread Voodoo
by William Matthew McCarter
The late morning sun felt like it was bashing in the sky and a darker, hotter, purer form of light was leaking through the clouds. Jake and I knew that it was too hot to do much of anything except go swimming and that’s why we were down at the swimming hole that all of the locals called Round Hole. Somewhere, not far from Round Hole, there was a spring that fed into a creek that fed into the creek that helped make Round Hole and somewhere on the other side, there was a creek that fed into Scott’s Creek that eventually emptied into the Piankashaw River. Gram showed us Round Hole years ago. She told us that she used to walk down to Round Hole and pick blackberries from the bushes scattered along the road that led up the rocky hill where the railroad passed through Piankashaw County. This was the first year that Gram would let us go down to Round Hole by ourselves. Jake and I weren’t entirely sure if it was because we had taken the swimming classes at the pool the previous summer or if it was because Gram and Big Daddy might get to have a little peace and quiet around the house while we were off at the swimming hole.
Jake and I were relaxing on the sandbar when all of a sudden, a large rock fell down into the water. It made a huge splash that landed all over Jake’s face. This really caught us by surprise and Jake and I looked up, almost as if we were wondering if the Almighty Himself had flung a rock down on us. Just before we broke out into prayer, asking for forgiveness and threatening repentance, I heard a laugh that could not have come from the Almighty. The laugh was the unmistakable snickering sound of Brian Bowden.
Brian was our archenemy; he was Boris and Natasha all wrapped up into one in our little Rocky and Bullwinkle neighborhood dynamic. He lived way up at the very top of the hill that seemed to reach into the heavens. Brian was the only son of a wealthy affluent family and he even had a pool in his back yard. Because he had a pool, he had no need to be at Round Hole unless he was looking for trouble. Quickly, another rock tumbled down from the other side of the railroad bridge and splashed in the water near our feet. Jake and I began scanning the landscape for Brian Bowden so that we might even the score – so that we could show him what it is like to dodge rocks when you are trying to enjoy a peaceful afternoon.
Gram told us that we shouldn’t retaliate against the Brian Bowdens of the world. However, Jake and I found that it didn’t do much good to do much else. If we told his parents that he was throwing rocks at us, they wouldn’t believe us. We were in Piankashaw and, here, our natures and our character were as unchanging as the color of our eyes or our hair. We were genetically disposed to be inferior to the Brian Bowdens of the county – that was our inheritance. And our children, that we haven’t even thought of yet? Well, they too were already genetically predisposed to be inferior as well. Sometimes I wondered if it was the knowledge of our pedigree that made us do what we did or if we were just preordained to get into trouble.
“Quit throwing rocks, you stupid bastard,” Jake said as he scanned the landscape looking for Brian. I looked down at his hand and he had a rock in it, waiting for Brian to show his face. I reached down and picked up one, too, thinking to myself that Jake calling Brian a “bastard” might make him want to show his face. Jake and I had been cussing a lot when we weren’t around Gram. I don’t know if it was the sound of the words or the feel of them coming out of our mouths, but they just seemed like something that we needed to say. There was a real mystique about them.
In spite of the fact that Jake and I would soon be turning fourteen, Gram still wouldn’t let us cuss. We found that out the hard way earlier that summer. Jake cussed in front of Gram and she missed it. I guess she didn’t hear him or something. Jake thought that meant that it was OK for us to cuss. It really made sense the way Jake explained it. He said that we were teenagers and teenagers cussed. I still didn’t believe him and I wanted proof so Jake and I went back in the kitchen while Gram was on the phone. Suddenly, Jake shouted “Who cut the lousy fart; someone shit their pants.” Gram was talking to her sister, my Aunt Ellie, on the phone. She quietly said, “hold on a minute,” and then smacked Jake upside the head with the receiver. Jake and I couldn’t figure out if she smacked him because he said “shit” or if it was because Aunt Ellie heard what he said and thought that it was Gram that cut the lousy fart. Jake and I discussed it for the rest of the day and ultimately decided that it was best if we just didn’t cuss around Gram.
Although we were cautious with our tongues in the presence of Gram, we took full advantage of every opportunity to cuss whenever she wasn’t around. Not only did we cuss because we liked the sound of the words and the feel of them on our lips, but we also recognized that there was something powerful and magical about cuss words. It didn’t make much sense how one arrangement of consonants and vowels (cuss words) was somehow different than other arrangements of consonants and vowels (non cuss words). However, cuss words seemed to evoke cosmic events when used. For example, calling someone a “bastard” or a “son of a bitch” was like an abracadabra for starting a fight; “god damn it” was a seem sala beem for healing wounds or easing pain; and “look at the shitter on that critter” was an open sesame for bringing wolf whistles and laughter from the rest of our gang of friends.
Jake’s incantation must have been powerful because as soon as Brian heard him say “stupid bastard,” he began climbing down the railroad bridge. Jake looked at me and I looked at him. We both had this kind of look that two twelve-year old boys got when they looked through the rows of candy underneath the counter at the country store, digging through the old penny candy in the bins, picking up pieces of chewing gum, and then finally looking beyond the counter and seeing the words” BIGGEST BREASTS IN THE MIDWEST” creeping out of the top of one of those carefully wrapped pornography magazines resting on the back shelf with all of the other decadent paraphernalia like condoms, cigarettes, and rolling papers.
Temptation met opportunity on an exponential level. Jake and I both began a rapid fire assault on Brian Bowden as he climbed down the railroad bridge unprotected. I hurled a nice piece of 2-inch minus gravel and hit Brian right square in the head. He let out a bloodcurdling scream that, for a moment, seemed as if it would break the sound barrier. This was a rebel yell so terrifying that it would send shivers down the spine of a dead man. Jake looked at me and I looked at him and for a moment, time just seemed to stop. It stopped just long enough for us to realize that Brian was much too angry to fight with right now. Self preservation was the biological imperative so we did what any reasonable person would do – we ran like hell.
Brian chased us up the gravel road that led to the county road that led to Gram’s house. We had a pretty good head start, but Brian could run faster than the Almighty could build Wal-Marts in rural America. I began to get winded but still had just enough in the tank for the little burst of speed that it would take for me to run safely into the driveway. No one, not even Brian Bowden, would dare throw a punch in Gram’s driveway. With our hearts pounding in our ears, Jake and I slowed down to a jog as we rounded the corner of the back porch. Brian stood out in the middle of the street begging us to come out and fight like men. I looked at Jake and Jake looked at me. Yeah, we both thought, we could probably both go out there and take him, but fighting with Brian wasn’t nearly as much fun as tormenting him. Jake and I stood on the patio and laughed a little bit longer before we finally went into the house to get a glass of Gram’s sun tea.
“What are you two up to,” Gram yelled in the high-pitched voice that she reserved for interrogatories that involved Jake and me. The pitch of this voice made me wince a little. It was sharp enough to cut through a regifted fruit cake.
At first, I thought that maybe I would just tell her that we evened the score with Brian Bowden and that I felt that he had finally gotten what he deserved, but then I thought of a more gallant approach – I was going to try and weasel my way out of it. I looked at Jake and he looked me. “Nothin’,” we both said in unison.
Gram didn’t miss much and she knew that we had been up to something. She had a peculiar kind of radar for that sort of thing. It was almost like she was psychic or something. Jake and I called it “cornbread voodoo.” Cornbread voodoo was how she always knew when we got in trouble – or were even thinking about doing something that would get us into trouble. At first, Jake and I didn’t believe in these near psychic powers that her cornbread voodoo gave her and we postulated several theories over the years about how Gram had come to the conclusions that she did.
Jake said that we must look like were in trouble and that was what tipped her off. After Jake and I got in trouble a couple of times, we went into the bathroom to look in the mirror to see if he was right, but he wasn’t. Then we decided that we must smell different after we got into trouble and that’s what gave us away. Our scientific experiments didn’t yield us anything except several whippings with a switch off the cherry tree. After a while, we decided that it was just safer for us to believe in Gram’s cornbread voodoo and we gave up finding a scientific explanation for it. Some things were just better off left alone and that was one of them.
Gram finally cajoled the truth out of us and then made us stay in the yard for the rest of the day. We spent the rest of the afternoon languidly hanging out on the patio, playing Wiffle Ball in the yard, and listening to the Cardinals game on the radio. Big Daddy came outside to sit with us after his nap and regaled us with stories about growing up in St. Louis during the commercials. Jack Buck’s pistol-driven voice announcing the game seemed secondary to Big Daddy and his stories. His face would light up when he told these stories. His memories made the old man more sentimental than a bottle of whiskey. However, just like the whiskey, the memories seemed to give way to a sense of nostalgic depression.
Big Daddy’s stories of our family history reminded us that we came from the most humble beginnings – escaped indentured servants from colonial Virginia. We had been the scum of Europe – the riff raff of the Old World. The fact that we were bottom feeders seemed more palatable when it came from Big Daddy. There was the promise of redemption in his voice – something that we never heard from anyone else who thought we were bottom feeders. He entertained us with his stories until the coming of the evening. While we were all sitting on the patio watching the far flung splendor of an Ozark sunset, Gram came outside and let us know that supper was ready.
Jake and I had been having so much fun with Big Daddy that we had forgotten that we were even in trouble. Gram hadn’t forgotten, but she couldn’t stay mad at us for long. Sometimes, it just seemed like griping was her way. I believed that her demeanor was the result of having nothing but a bunch of hell raising Good Ole Boys like Big Daddy, Uncle Jake, and the rest of us boys around her all the time. The bonds of human affection were funny things and I sometimes thought that if we weren’t related to Gram, she probably wouldn’t have anything to do with any of us. In fact, we would probably be in the same category as all of the stray animals that roamed around the neighborhood and made the mistake of getting too close to Gram. She kept an inventory of the animals that left piles in the yard, got into the trash, tore up something, or just pissed her off and she held a grudge until she dispensed her vigilante justice – usually an assfull of rock salt from her .22 pistol. We – her immediate family – were the only ones that ever got forgiveness and most of the time none of us really deserved it.
Big Daddy was almost the polar opposite of Gram. While she got her catharsis through griping at us, he seemed to get his through laughter. He even told us that the Almighty had a good sense of humor and cited the fact that we pee and screw with the same appendage to prove that his theory was correct. Gram didn’t seem to think that anything was very funny and had a whole kitchen full of taboos that she regularly commented on: drinking too much, lusting over women, staying out late, getting up late, loafing around the house, lollygagging around the neighborhood, and just about anything else that seemed like it might be fun to do. She also had a whole house full of the Almighty’s little incarnated cartoons to piss her off as she cooked up her cornbread voodoo, dished out squares of rebukes and punishments, and sopped up our iniquities with what seemed like an endless amount of forgiveness.
William Matthew McCarter is from Southeast Missouri. He says he grew up “in the sticks” and has been influenced by Dorothy Allison’s work. McCarter’s graduate school dissertation was an interdisciplinary cultural studies exploration of rednecks and white trash, and he’s currently working on creative writing that highlights the ethos between the two. “These stories need to be told and I am willing to tell them,” he says.