COVER- SHORT STORY- The Potato Cannon War
This story took third place in the Hook's short story contest, judged by John Grisham. "I must confess," said Grisham of Walter's story, "I have actually fired a potato cannon. So I was naturally drawn to this hilarious story."
Aunt Betsy told everyone who would listen: Hedgepeth boys weren't good for anything but mischief. Of course, Betsy wasn't a real Hedgepeth. She was a fourth-grade teacher who had married into our clan only to find her husband, Jackie Coogan Hedgepeth, dead of a shotgun wound one morning after a high-stakes card game in the back of Mooney's Billiards. He had left at five in the morning with piles of ill-gotten green and made it to the end of his driveway before someone shot him and stole every last dollar. This "shotgun wound"– as the papers called it– was the top part of Jack's head, gone.
A rumor on our side had it that Aunt Betsy found him passed out drunk in his Rambler, took the money into the house, came back with a shotgun, and shot him through the car window. The only real evidence was the fact that she had plenty of money afterwards, but claimed it was a life insurance policy Uncle Jack had through the Railroad. Maybe the life insurance was real, but Jack lost about $10,000 that night, plus his life, and either way, it was the richest he had ever been, if only for one hour.
Police Chief Buzz Howell figured the killer(s) was from the card game, but said all the players had alibis. They never found Jack's shotgun, either, but nobody could swear he actually owned one, especially Aunt Betsy. So case closed.
Aunt Betsy was a happy woman when she got the "life insurance," but not so happy when she discovered that she'd been written out of Uncle Jack's will. He had built her one of the nicest places in town, up on the mountainside, from the money he made gambling down at Mooney's. Jack had worked years for the Railroad– he was one of those fellows who sat in the caboose and waved at kids as the train went through the crossings (honestly, I think maybe the best job ever)– until he fell drunk off the back of his caboose and knocked something loose in his brain. It never hurt his card playing one bit, though– it maybe made it better. Also, he had disability money.
Afterwards, Jack had a pang of conscience about leaving his fortune to a woman who was not a real Hedgepeth (all boys for four generations; women got the name only through marriage). She was not even from Atwell– she was from Kingsport and had gone to college– so he wrote her out of the will. I don't think he really loved her anyway. After he built her that big house– with a spectacular view of downtown from the porch– rumor had it that she pretty much stopped putting out for him (some said more than his head got mashed when he fell off the train).
They had the funeral– closed casket, for sure– at the First Baptist Church and then buried him in the little cemetery out back. Jack had never visited either one; he got religion from an Episcopal priest on a train ride from Birmingham to Bristol. When he got home, he announced he was Episcopal, and could therefore drink, play cards, not have to go to church, and still find favor in the eyes of God. Several of his friends immediately announced for the Episcopals, but their wives wouldn't have it, so soon enough they were back being Baptists who didn't go to church– but felt guilty about it.
After the funeral, Jack's friends were out back drinking, and the women were all fluttering around Aunt Betsy in the fellowship hall. Me, my brothers and our cousins leaned against the walls trying to get a glimpse of Betsy's cleavage that flashed up now and again from the secret depths of her black silk dress; it was the only teacher cleavage we had ever seen.
Anyway, Aunt Betsy didn't get squat– except for the life insurance or gambling money, depending on which killer theory you like– and since they had no heirs, Momma and Daddy got the house. Betsy couldn't believe they would kick her out of her own home, but my daddy told her that although it might be her home, it was our house, and we sure didn't want her living there with us. So she stormed out and moved across town near her school.
Us Hedgepeth boys suddenly decided we liked Aunt Betsy. We sometimes rode our bikes over to her house to watch TV– keeping an eye out for cleavage– plus eating whatever was sitting around. Like as not it was cereal with roughage in it, but we liked cereal and Betsy pretended to like us, so she let us eat all we wanted. I realized later she didn't really like us much, but she needed to pump us for information about our family secrets and our treatment of the house. She had a notion to file a lawsuit against the real Hedgepeths to get her home back and maybe some other things, too.
Betsy was encouraged in this by Police Chief Buzz Howell, who, though married and an elder in the Methodist church, was a weekly visitor to her bedroom– every Wednesday night while his wife was at church– something we discovered after one of the cousins went through her underwear drawer and found a note pinned to a new pair of red panties that read: "Betsy, wear Wed nite. Your Pistol-Packing Daddy, Buzz."
Anyway, the lawsuit never went anywhere, and we moved on to younger cleavage, but Betsy never stopped gossiping about us. She was a teacher, but we were her hobby.
Third place-winner Robert Walters probably fits a common stereotype of a short-story contest entrant: he's a 53-year-old high school English teacher who writes when he's not correcting the run-on sentences and misplaced participles in his students' essays.
"I did a whole lot of writing early in my career and took lots of courses," the Asheville, North Carolina resident says. "Then I stopped for 25 years to raise a family, coach cross-country and track, and pursue a teaching career." But that hiatus left 1,000 pages of novels and short stories marooned in a briefcase.
"In the last two years," Walters says, "I started writing obsessively, voluminously, on a novel. I've entered several contests, and been the highest finalist several times, but, alas, so far I'm always the bridesmaid...."
He wrote this story expressly for John Grisham. "I looked at my work and saw that I had nothing under [the contest limit of] 3,500 words, so I knocked that story out in two nights," he says. But it was still too long, making necessary the "eye-opening exercise of cutting over 1,000 of my precious words."
His efforts paid off. "I must confess," Grisham wrote of his third-place choice, "I have actually fired a potato cannon. So I was naturally drawn to this hilarious story."
Walters is pleased with Grisham's comments. They spur him on, he says, to "continue going to conferences, disciplining myself. It takes enormous discipline to stick with writing, but I'm ready to put myself under the gun."
We presume he doesn't mean a potato cannon!–Rosalind Warfield-Brown
PHOTO COURTESY ROBERT WALTERS
Now all that's by way of explaining how we got the big house on the hill, even though, according to Betsy, we were undesirable stock. And the rest is okay to tell now, because most of the principals are long buried in the little Baptist cemetery alongside Uncle Jack.
It was 1959, and I was nineteen. My name is Cooper Hedgepeth, and I had two brothers, Scooter and Bobby. Scooter– oldest by two years– is not Scooter's real name. It's Lester. But only Momma dared call him Lester: she couldn't keep Scooter and Cooper straight, so she called him Les, but Lester when he was in trouble.
Scooter was smart as a nuclear scientist from Oak Ridge. He got nick-named Scooter because he loved things that moved and went; he could fix anything on wheels. He worked as a mechanic and drove a new pick-up every year; he squinted like Humphrey Bogart and hardly ever smiled. Girls loved Scooter.
Bobby, seventeen, smiled all the time. He pretty well satisfied Aunt Betsy's appraisal of our family: he was small, jumpy, and worthless. Momma spoiled and protected him to the point that sometimes Daddy grabbed him up and smacked him for good measure: "That's for what you done when I wasn't there to catch you," he'd say. And since there were plenty of things Bobby had done and not gotten caught for, he found it reasonable and never complained. Girls were afraid of Bobby.
It was Scooter, of course, who built the potato cannon. One Saturday when Momma and Daddy were off visiting, he brought home a bag and some plastic pipe from the hardware store, plus some potatoes. We helped carry the stuff from his truck to the big workshop out back. Bobby was asking questions before we got through the door. "What's this tube for, Scooter?"
"That's PVC pipe; it's new plastic stuff just come out. It's used for plumbing instead of metal."
"Huh," grunted Bobby. "What's PVC stand for?"
"Whoa!" said Bobby. "What's polly-vine-chlorine?"
Scooter squinted at Bobby and frowned.
"Whatever," said Bobby, looking wounded for half a second. "What're we doing with all this stuff?"
"We aren't doing jack; I'm making a potato cannon."
"Yes, big whoa," said Scooter.
Bobby‘s eyes darted back and forth between us for a moment. I wanted to know as bad as Bobby, but I knew he'd ask and sure enough: "What's a potato cannon for?"
Scooter looked disappointed again.
I ventured, "I guess you shoot potatoes out of it."
"Bingo," Scooter said. "Now, Cooper, will you go cut the handle off that old broom over there?"
"You just need the broomstick?" He nodded.
Poor Bobby couldn't help himself. "What's the broomstick for?"
"It's a ramrod," Scooter explained, this time pleased to be asked, "for stuffing the potato down the barrel."
I sawed off the handle and gave it to Scooter. "Thanks," he said. "How ‘bout y'all give me 15 minutes, then we'll drive to Uncle Joby's farm and try it out, okay?"
"Dang, I'm glad he's our brother," said Bobby after I closed the door. "I wished I was that smart, don't you?"
"I sure do," I said truthfully.
"Scooter, what'd you tell Uncle Joby?"
"That we're doing a little shooting– which is the truth." We were in the back pasture, sitting around the bed of Scooter's truck admiring the cannon– six feet of shiny white plastic. "We'll launch 'em from here," he said.
"Where'd you learn how to make it?" I asked.
"From a magazine," he said importantly. "They're big over in Europe." It was years before I realized how much bunk Scooter made up on the spot.
He pulled a can of hairspray out of a bag. Bobby laughed. "Whoa! You gonna fix our hair?" That cracked him up.
"Nope," said Scooter, demonstrating: "You just ram the potato down the barrel, like this, then spray this hairspray into the wide end, like this. Then quick screw in this cap with the hole in it, jam in this charcoal lighter, and click this trigger.
Bobby frowned. "That's it?"
"Just stand back." Scooter set the front end on his tailgate.
"Step back, Bobby..."
Bobby jumped and fell out of the truck. Nobody laughed; though; we just watched that potato fly higher and higher into the air, over the pasture, over the creek– gone. It must have landed nearly half a mile away.
We busted out cheering. "Woo-hoo!" yelled Bobby.
"Hot dang," said Scooter, clapping. "Let's go again! Cooper, your turn."
"Why Cooper?" whined Bobby.
"Hush, Bobby– when'll you grow up?"
We shot potatoes till dark. We learned to aim by how much hairspray we used, and how much we raised or lowered the barrel. We hit a couple of trees a quarter mile away. We tried to hit some of Joby's cows, but missed. We got pretty good, though.
"Dang," said Bobby as we drove home. "I feel like a soldier."
With Momma and Daddy out of town, Scooter bought some beer; we sat out on the porch celebrating our potato marksmanship. Beer, he said, was a man's drink, but Bobby could drink it anyway. We all laughed, even Bobby. It got late and we got very drunk. That's when Bobby said, "We oughta fire the cannon from right off this porch." Everyone got quiet.
I felt that little evil thing crawling from my heart to my brain; I knew I was about to say something I would regret: "We aim pretty good."
"Holy cow," said Scooter, leaning forward and squinting down into town. "What should we go for?" Bobby jumped up and down, whooping. "Dammit, Bobby, shut up. Go get your bike." Bobby ran whooping around the corner of the house. "Cooper, does Daddy still have those walkie-talkies from the VFD?"
"Yeah, they're up in his closet right now."
"What's the range?"
"Half mile, maybe more."
"Go fetch 'em."
We all got back about the same time. Scooter had his binoculars. "Men," he said, raising the glasses, "how about the high school?"
You'd have thought Scooter had planned this for months. He organized it so fast, it seemed he was reading from a manual. He sent Bobby off on the bicycle into town with a walkie-talkie with instructions to get close to the target and help us with aim. I was to fire the cannon– I seemed to have the best touch– and Scooter would man the binoculars and the other walkie-talkie.
We watched Bobby wobble off on his bike, cussing, carrying the walkie-talkie in one hand and steering with the other. In a few minutes he was hiding in some bushes behind the school.
"Let 'er rip. Over," he whispered into the walkie-talkie.
There was a pause and then Bobby yelled, "Oh, yeah!"
"Hush, dammit," snapped Scooter, "and say over."
"Over," Bobby whispered.
Scooter rolled his eyes. "Did we hit something? Over."
"A dang school bus. Number 12, splat! Uh– over."
"Now go to Grub's Market. Over."
We fired several more times. We hit the roof of Grub's market, we hit two cars, we hit a house and the people came running outside. Scooter told Bobby to high-tail it home. We hid the cannon in the woods and cleaned up our beer cans. It was a good day.
The next morning, we were awakened by a pounding on the door. I opened it to find Chief Buzz Howell glaring at me. "Get your daddy," he ordered.
"Good morning, Buzz," said Scooter over my shoulder.
"They're outta town," I said. "They'll be back soon, though."
Buzz eyed us a second. "Don't suppose you heard any big booms up here last night? Like a shotgun?"
Scooter shook his head. "Nossir, but we had the Methodist hymnals out and was singing, so maybe that's why we didn't hear. Why?"
Buzz glared at him. "Somebody up here... You wouldn't know anything about shootin' potatoes, would you?"
"Shootin' potatoes? That's funny."
Buzz nodded his head. "I been told all I need to hear about Hedgepeths," he said fiercely. "I don't know how you done this, but I'll figure it out, and I'll be back." He stormed off the porch and drove away in an angry cloud of dust.
Scooter watched and squinted. "What're you doin' around church time Wednesday night, Cooper?" he asked.
"Target practice, maybe?"
"I reckon so."
Aunt Betsy lived in a little cove on the far end of town. There were a few houses back there, and Betsy's was the last one, backed up to a little ridge topped by an old railroad spur. Opposite was a wooded hillside.
Everyone was generally at church come Wednesday night at 7:00. For safety, though, Betsy always fetched Buzz and drove up the little road and into her garage. They went in and did their whoopie for 45 minutes, then she chauffeured him back. He always laid down in the back seat. We had spied all this out years ago after the red panties.
Scooter made two more cannons, so we each had one. He assigned himself the ridge above the house, looking down on the bedroom, and I was to take the woods across the street. "Fire at will," Scooter told me. (Who's Will?" Bobby asked.) Bobby had the best part; he nearly vibrated to death with excitement when Scooter explained it. He would drive up and shoot his cannon out the window of Scooter's truck, then haul out of there. He had one walkie-talkie, and Scooter had the other. "Wait till I'm sure they're doin' the big nasty," he told Bobby.
Wednesday night we got into place and watched everyone go off to church. A little later, Betsy's car came creeping up the road and into the garage. I was ready, with my spray can and lighter poised, waiting for Bobby. My heart pounded like a sump pump.
Suddenly Scooter's pick-up swung onto the road, lights out, gear low. It whipped around in front of Betsy's, and I saw the white end come sticking out of the passenger side. Then:
Bobby's potato blasted right through the picture window, shattering it into a million pieces. I let fly– BOOM– at about the same time I heard another BOOM from the ridge. A light flashed on lickety-split, then went out again. I rammed, sprayed and got off another shot in 15 seconds; Scooter was 5 seconds after that. In three minutes, we took out five or six more windows and hit the roof and the siding at least as many times. There was a lot of cussing between blasts, and then I heard a flurry of gunshots. "White-trash Hedgepeths," Buzz screamed. "I'll kill you white-trash sumbitches!"
Then there was silence; it was the most scared I had ever been. We hadn't thought of Buzz shooting us. But a second later I heard BOOM and a voice yelled, "Put your pants on, pistol-packing daddy!"
The next sound was the garage door slamming up, then Betsy's car flying out the driveway and peeling down the road. As it slowed to turn, I heard another BOOM! Betsy swerved and drove over the stop sign. She slammed on her brakes and screamed something hateful out the window at Bobby, then screeched out of sight.
Next morning, there was nothing to do but wait. We sat on the porch and talked in low voices about the battle. Bobby wanted to hear the story about twenty times. Daddy was at work, and Momma was inside doing chores. Once she stepped out to the porch and said, "You boys going to work today, or is this a special holiday for fools?"
Bobby looked guilty as hell, but Scooter just squinted. "Well, it may be, Momma," he said. She shook her head and went back in.
Around 10 o'clock, sure enough, here came the chief. He drove onto the grass and parked right in front of the porch; he got out and walked around his cruiser.
Scooter said, "Morning, chief. Did you ever solve the potato mystery?"
"Shut up," he said, then pulled his gun and threw a set of handcuffs onto the porch. "Put these on." He reached in his pocket, and threw two more.
I looked at Scooter; he just shook his head. Bobby's eyes were big as silver dollars. Nobody moved.
"Boys, I'm about ready to shoot the lot of you. I'm finished. Betsy's finished, too. You could have killed someone last night; did you ever think of that?"
"With potatoes?" blurted Bobby.
"Shut up! Now put them on. You're all under arrest."
Bobby started to get up. "Sit down," Scooter hissed. He leaned forward on the rail and said, soft as snowfall, "How's the wife, Buzz?"
"Won't work, Scooter. No witnesses. I was working late, like every Wednesday. Now where'd you hide them cannons? That‘s right– I looked 'em up. Potato cannons. I want 'em right now."
"Well, okay," said Scooter. "But first, I wanna show you something." He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pair of red panties, with a note pinned on. He waved them in the air, then read: "Betsy, wear Wednesday night. Your pistol-packing daddy, Buzz."
The chief's face got as red as the panties. "Throw 'em down here right now, Scooter, before this gets ugly. Everybody knows about Hedgepeths. If I have to shoot, it will be self defense– there's three of you, one of me." He cocked his gun and raised it to eye level. "I told you I'm finished."
Scooter squinted. "Buzz, we got pictures, we got eye witnesses, we got fifteen cousins that know all you been doing for years. And we got Momma upstairs pointing a double barrel shotgun at your pecker. So if you're gonna shoot, you better squeeze fast if you wanna hit all of us before she blows your manhood over into Wise County. Betsy won't have no use for a Daddy that ain't packin' no pistol."
Buzz started peering up at the windows, nervous, his head bobbing like a parakeet. He backed up around the cruiser, moving slowly. "I'm not through," he said.
"Yeah, you are, Buzz. Go back to your whore on Wednesday and we'll call it square. Oh, and while you're doing your dirty business, ask her how come she killed Uncle Jack." Buzz glared as he got into his car, still peering at the upstairs windows, and drove away.
Bobby nearly exploded with glee. He started bouncing up and down in one place. "I never ever saw nothing like that. And you're my brother." He tried to hug Scooter, who pushed him away.
"Settle down, Bobby," he said, but he was smiling.
"Where'd you ever get hold of those panties?' I asked.
"At Woolworth's yesterday," he said. "Why? You need a pair?"
"Dang, that's so smart!" crowed Bobby. "And that part about Momma in the window– how'd you think of that?"
Next second the screen door slammed and there stood Momma with a shotgun in her hands. Bobby looked back at Scooter like he was seeing an arch-angel. Momma broke down the barrels and pulled out two buckshot shells. She was not happy.
"Lester," she snapped, "May I speak with you inside? Right now. You pair of idiots stay put." She glared at us, then followed Scooter through the door.
"Whoa!" Bobby said, wide-eyed.
"Big whoa," I said, truthfully.