I discovered Uncle Joe’s while traveling a scenic route to Knoxville. I needed a pressure stop. My cramped body so welcomed this chance for stretching that I decided to drink a Royal Crown (as they still call it down there), and munch on a banana Moon Pie.
It appeared to be a food store — you know the kind — homey little leftover from days gone by. The shack, very typical of those found in most out-of-the-way places, was a steep-pitched gabled roof set directly on low walls. The builder had not bothered with inner walls or a ceiling. Against the back wall rested an honest-to-goodness ancient pop machine that cooled the soft drinks with ice and water. A towel hung on the wall for drying the bottle before you opened it. The honor system ruled. You paid at the register. Surely, Americana thrived at Uncle Joe’s.
The floor boards wobbled under my feet as I gazed at the hundreds of folksy craft items perched on, propped against, and hanging from every possible inch of space, even from the exposed beams overhead. Obviously, this place did not depend on local patronage. Quilts, braided rugs, afghans, and fancy aprons covered the walls. Each one was as intricate and beautiful as the skilled artisans could produce. After a quick perusal, I decided that this should be the place to supply my souvenir and memento needs for my trip.
Staples for subsistence—Vienna sausages, sandwich spread, local-bakery white bread, grape jelly, etc.—jammed the spaces between the money makers. The back corner boasted a meat counter complete with hanging hams. Except for the thirty-foot display of candy bars, mints, and gum, I got the feeling the foodstuffs were there for atmosphere only…and that made me wonder about something.
I walked over to the large selection of antique hand saws with country scenes painted in acrylics on the blades. Each one bore a tiny sticker that said Mega-Rube Enterprises, Chicago. Now I felt a bit of anger rise deep inside me. The “hand-made” reed baskets boasted Fabco, Taiwan. Even the down home clothing sported the union label. (One of those “country” T-shirts had a picture of a Ninja Turtle in bib overalls with the caption, “Howdy, y’all!”) The side-room overflowed with fluorescent paintings on black velvet that bore no mark of their origin.
The only thing at Uncle Joe’s that were greater than the deceptions about the merchandise were the price tags. Uncle Joe is a fraud—a trap for city folk!
I wasn’t about to spend my money on bogus bounty. I made my way toward the register to settle my account. That’s when I saw her. Right there, in the midst of my anger, I saw her. My spirits soared and my nostalgic pride rekindled as I came face to face with one more genuine article—a live octogenarian working behind the counter.
Standing about five-foot-six and shaped much like the rails that held the quilt display, she glanced up at me through deep-set eyes surrounded by a mass of wrinkles from a lifetime of hard work, or smoking, or both. She must be Uncle Joe’s wife, Aunt Sukey or whatever!
I set my bottle and wrapper on the counter and reached for my wallet. “Interesting little place you’ve got,” I said. “How many generations has it been in your family?”
“Generations?” she muttered mechanically. “They just built the place seven years back. I hired in about nine weeks ago. That’ll be $1.65.”
“Then you’re not…”
“No!” Her eyes turned hard and she glared at me with tensed lips. “I ain’t nobody’s aunt. My husband’s name is Ollie and I ain’t never even knowed a Uncle Joe. You git any gas?” She snapped up the two dollars that I plopped on the counter and froze waiting for a reply on the fuel.
“No,” I replied.
She handed me my change and put both her hands on the counter, leaning heavily on her extended arms. Her head seemed to sink to her unbent elbows. The, slowly, she pulled herself up to her full height and pasted on a broad smile.
“Y’all come see us ag’in, now. Heauh?”