Daniel Uncapher

Creative Nonfiction

Daniel Uncapher is a graduate of the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, where he won multiple awards in the Southern Literary Festival for his poetry and nonfiction. In his spare time, he operates a Heidelberg letterpress from the restored antebellum home in Water Valley, where he lives with his dog. His short fiction has appeared and is forthcoming in Neon Literary Magazine.


Five Handy Men

1. Rabbit

Rabbit lived at the foot of the hill in a tenement, last of its kind, a three-story overcrowded brick box with shanty tents propped outside the crumbling walls like a little Hoovertown. He was lucky enough to sleep inside the walls on the third floor where the most resourceful locals cooked crystal meth, the production of which garnered the modest valley considerable regional acclaim for its affordability, consistency, and availability.

One hazy September evening as the city school bus ferried half-asleep children by, a stovetop fire in a kitchen-manufactory broke out on the third floor, setting off a column of smoke in the middle of Main Street as black and broad as the pine knot and tar bonfires they burned to fight the miasma of Yellow Fever. The victims gathered on the sidewalk outside and watched their lives incinerate. Somebody called the police, who called the fire chief who called the mayor, a chicken-dealing Baptist who disliked the tenement complex as much as the next white man and told the fire chief to let the whole place burn down—make a show of saving her, but let her burn. Along the way, someone collected some insurance money, but it wasn’t anyone standing on the sidewalk that day covered in ash and soot.

Rabbit got along as usual, moving into a trailer with a girl of his on the far side of the valley past yonder bend at Town Creek where the warehouses are, a far piece to walk, but he walked it every single morning to come work on my house just as he’d done since the day I moved in; he marched up the street, introduced himself as “Rabbit, because I’m lucky,” and reckoned with me privately that an old house like mine needed to be scraped and painted just about all the way around, and that he just happened to be in the business of scraping and painting old houses.

Being in no business to employ fellow human beings and provide for the mouths of other families at that time, I offered $300 to drive him away, but in a great twist to my naiveté, he showed up the next day with a scraper and paintbrush and went right to work. Every day or two he’d ask for some money in advance, enough for a bottle, a can of tuna and a moon pie or two. He never counted the money I gave him, just took it and said thanks, just like he never used the telephone and he never signed checks; the old man was both numerically and alphabetically illiterate and, as far as I could tell, genuinely didn’t realize I was ripping him off. I tried to teach him the alphabet for a few days like a player in some colonialist play until I decided just to pay him better and leave him alone, and he went back to painting and whistling in peace (handy people make excellent whistlers, and it comes all the more natural to Southerners—they can snap their fingers and hand bone, too, like their limbs are made out of wooden clappers and strings).

Rabbit managed to scrape three quarters of my house and paint half of it drippy, glistening eggshell white by the time his luck finally ran out. One balmy spring night in a corrugated warehouse near his girl’s place on the riverbed, a gambling friend stabbed Rabbit in the back over twenty bucks and a bad hand. When the police arrived they found a hundred dollar bill folded up in the heel of his left shoe, and no one had anything to say about Rabbit again.

2. Matt

Matt did good work well, better than the insulting wages I’d become accustomed to paying by the precedent of a numerically illiterate cardplayer. On the first day he lugged his own mower and weed whacker all the way up the hill, set the tools of his trade down on the sidewalk in front of my house and politely alerted me to the state of the lawn. I agreed with his concerned assessment and turned him down. On the second day he returned while I was away and my roommate hired him for $15. When he stuck me with the bill my lawn looked better than it had in years, and I gave him a full twenty-dollar bill in a fit of pure generosity. Matt even had the good nature to pretend I was being generous.

He was a short man with a deeply furrowed brow like a Bodhisattva both stoic and skeptic. He wore rimless glasses when speaking with me and I felt like he listened to me when I spoke, a not insignificant feat for the locals who find themselves dealing with we otherwise insufferable carpetbaggers.

I hired him to finish what Rabbit started, just to keep him around. I took long breaks from my writing to sit with him and talk. We talked about travel. I mentioned the continent, and he said he once went to Mexico; I shared my envy over Mexico and said he should go back. He mentioned something about passports. I clapped him on his paint-splattered back and assured him it was easy to get a passport; “It’s never too late,” I said. “I’ll even take the picture for you.”

There is a hollow over the ravine below a ridge on the far side of the hill under the shade of the kudzu called Possum Holler where Matt lived with his girlfriend and children. After a few months’ work, he moved his family into a small white ranch home on Central Street right by Rascal’s gas station downtown and directly next door to the local tax assessor, an excruciatingly fair-minded woman who photographed her new neighbor dealing dime bags from his porch with a telescopic lens one night and submitted her portfolio of work for inspection by the local police, who obliged the good publican by breaking down Matt’s front door midweek at midnight and rousing his family out of bed at gunpoint, including their youngest son, autistic and hard of hearing, who screamed in terror at the home invasion. They confiscated half a pound of weed, a $12 digital scale, and all the money in the house including the children’s’ savings before finally hauling their father a few blocks up Main Street to jail.

When his wife bailed him out the next morning, he came to me for help. The police took the money that I had paid him just that week and claimed it for drug money. I typed up a letter on Matt’s behalf formally stating that I paid him every cent of the cash the police confiscated, but it did him no good; on a rosy-fingered dawn several weeks later, he shot a man at the local Sonic Drive-In restaurant over an incident with some drinks, of which Sonic is a most famous and capable purveyor.

For that he was sent down to Parchman.

3. Earl

Earl ran a company called Rebel Electric and came highly recommended by every old boy you asked. Old houses like mine can be tricky, but Earl did what had to be done, he said, and that is true, although not always quite all the way, as the South itself, as a rule, is never quite all the way done.

He spoke softly, carried a big clipboard, and drove a humble white Ranger with a fading rebel flag decal stuck to the side. Like Matt, he wore half-moon glasses while he worked that looked rather fatherly and gave me advice on wiring up on some antiquated machinery I needn’t bother wiring up, for which he befriended me on Facebook to share some eBay listings for the necessary power converters, which I never bought.

His Facebook posts dominated my feed thereafter, entertaining works of speculative fiction that made a few things about Earl’s character quite apparent from the intimate content of his late-night compositions. He liked to relax after work with a drink or two, and when he drank to let loose, his mind ran even looser, dreaming up things he felt he should say—like calling out the Muslim president for being too friendly with the towelheads. When a friend and customer rebuked him for making such tasteless comments in public and threatened to withdraw her business, he threatened to withdraw his business right back and doubled-down on the rhetoric of the so-called “sand niggers,” a troublesome construct of people better off transformed into glass—glass the whole desert, he said.

One winter he began fooling around with a younger girl, the 45-year-old fiancée of a construction worker from the nearby drive-by community of Mount Olivet who drove to Earl’s house and beat the shit out of him over the affair. Earl got in his truck and chased the jilted lover up Cotton Road over the Yocona at Dallas Jones’ crossing to the old railroad split called Grinder’s Switch, halfway between Olivet and Taylor. They pulled onto the roadside gravel and Earl got out of his Rebel Electric Ranger with his 1911, firing 18 rounds into the back of the cuckold’s new F-150. One bullet pierced the corner of the driver’s seat and embedded itself in his shoulder, turning Earl’s crime into, among a number of other things, attempted manslaughter.

They took him on down to Parchman to sort it all out.

4. Wade

Wade worked his way door-to-door up the street, introducing himself in a clear, flat voice in his attempt to draw the homeowner and potential employer’s attention away from the dual teardrops tattooed under his right eye, one unfilled (which means, so I’ve heard, his friend was killed) and one filled (which means, or so I’ve heard, he killed his friend’s killer). I have also heard that teardrops just mean you were somebody’s bitch in prison, but then the distinction between filled and unfilled only complicates the riddle.

When he came to my door, I turned him away because I was both tight on cash and a little bit jaded from handymen. He lived around the block in the old kudzu-addled mobile home (long abandoned since its career as a meth lab of inconvenient proportions) with his girlfriend and three kids and told me I could find him there if I changed my mind. After he left, my neighbor came over and inquired on the nature of the young black man that came to her door; I told her not to worry, that he was a family man looking for work.

I hired him the next week to dig a brick walkway. He worked well enough to recommend him to my parents across town whose house needed more work than mine. They felt so bad for him that they moved him into one of their small rentals across the valley, offering to take rent in the form of services rendered. They lent him their truck and my mother sprained her back helping him move some of their old furniture in.

Over the next three months, he spent most of the day between my house and my parents’ doing this or that or watching television or emptying the nickels and dimes from the change bowl by the front door. Then he began writing checks to himself from my parents’ various checking accounts and cashing them at the local Piggly Wiggly, a self-service grocer that makes good money selling pig lard and bagged apples and cashing bad checks, like Wade’s.

He stole $1200 over several weeks and upon confrontation admitted immediately that it was to pay for his weed addiction and he would pay the money back. We reported the theft to the police who deferred the matter to the banks affected, who deliberated on pressing charges. Wade promised to leave town if his family could stay in their new house, his girlfriend paying rent between her dual income of secretary at a local manufactory and a disability recipient, but the next weekend Wade stole a ladder off a neighbor’s porch to cut it down and sell for scrap. The neighbor watched it happening and called the police on him, who arrested him for home invasion and sent him to Parchman over $20 of scrap aluminum.

His wife and children stayed in the house and continued to work at the manufactory and receive disability and make a go of it for the children, who grew up.

5. For Hire

Looking for a reliable handyman to do general scraping, painting, and landscaping at affordable rates. Come to the front porch of the Cedars at the top of the big hill across from the drug store for an interview. No references necessary.

The characters in this story are real people, but their names have been changed, as the true natures of their crimes remain circumscribed by rumor and hearsay. In some cases, history repeats itself; around 1912, a rooming house burned down exactly where Rabbit's apartment complex stood. When the fire started to die down, the owner is said to have called out, "Let it blaze up a little, boys, so the firemen can see what they're doing." (Yalobusha County History, 1982) Sometimes history doesn't repeat, it perpetuates; Parchman Farm, otherwise known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary (or, as Faulkner called it in 1959, "destination doom"), was built by its own prisoners in 1901 on an active cotton plantation, where a predominantly (90% in 1917) African-American population was subjected to slavery-like conditions until almost a century after the Civil War. Today it holds over 4,000 prisoners.

Wade and Earl are free again, and looking for work.