Southern Heat

by Kelly McQuain

It was my step-grandfather who said the word
as we drove through a blur of Georgia peanut fields
past black kids sitting on shanty stoops:
a boy and girl not much older than me—
cornrow hair, dirt on their feet. And though
I'd never heard the word before that family visit south,
I knew what it meant the moment
my grandfather opened his mouth. Hot wind
through the window wouldn't blow it away.
My fault? I was the one who'd made him say
"Them's jigaboos" when I pointed
out the window to ask Who're they?

I couldn't offer the awkward chuckle
someone else in the car did—my mother?
older brother? I knew their hiccup of laughter hid
the same disappointment I felt in this man.
He didn't understand: words hurt. I did.
At seven, I already knew "faggot", I knew "queer".
I knew my step-grandfather, studying to be a preacher,
had his own messed-up cross to bear
having lost his first wife and six kids nine years before
in a house fire while he was out working
the railroad graveyard shift.
Difference burned, too—I knew the sting of its blisters—
yet hot Georgia dust clawed at my throat
as my granddad's car tore down that gravel road.
Houses and fields swept by. Light whipped
like a cotton sheet. I sat down, the hot vinyl seat
burning me. I was burning alive!
Damn if I didn’t hate everyone
the way I hated myself inside.

Our gas was low so we stopped
at an old clapboard store to pee and fill up.
While Grandpop stood working the pump
my brother and I followed the women
past a beat-up cigar store Indian
into the store's dusty cool
where amber fly strips stirred like streamers
above the sweep of an oscillating fan.
What I didn't understand
was how
putting down a person could prop another up.
No one to ask, so instead
I begged Mama for a grape pop.
She hunted for coins as Grandpop strode in
to shoot the shit with the storekeeper.
All hellfire, all brimstone, my grandpop.
In a few years, he'd make one lousy preacher.
He paid for the gas, my grape Nehi.
My love? That went unearned.
I pressed the cold bottle to my chest as I left
but damn if we still didn't burn.

Kelly McQuain’s poetry has appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, The Pinch, Assaracus, Bloom, Chelsea Station, American Writing, and the anthology Poems for the Writing. His fiction has appeared in the anthologies Best American Erotica, Skin & Ink, and the Lambda Award-winning Men on Men 2000. In Winter 2014, his poem, “Camping as Boys in the Cow Field”, will appear in Redivider as winner of their AWP poem contest, selected by poet Reginald Dwayne Betts. More work is forthcoming this winter in Weave and Rabbit Ears: TV Poems. McQuain works as a professor in Philadelphia. Visit him at

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