Rounder, non-fiction by Jennifer McGaha

I have tried many times before to write about my grandfather’s youngest broth­er, Bill, but I can nev­er get it quite right—how his mouth turns into that half grin before he curls his lips to one side and squirts tobac­co juice onto the ground, how he has that same slow way of speak­ing, that thick molasses tongue like my grand­fa­ther had, how he waits when you ask him some­thing, a pause so long that, just when you are ready to repeat your­self, he’s sud­den­ly answer­ing you, and, when he does, it is nev­er what you expect­ed.  It is inevitably wild­ly irreverent.

That Bill’s a liar,” my grand­fa­ther used to say.  “Don’t believe any­thing he says.”

Which I don’t, of course.  Every­one who knows Bill knows that he is full of fables and exag­ger­a­tions and half-truths, a man who blurts out what­ev­er comes to his mind just to get a reac­tion.  Just the oth­er day, he told me that a woman from a scoot­er chair sup­ply com­pa­ny had just called him try­ing to sell him a chair.

Hell, I don’t need one of those damn chairs!” Bill told her.  “All I need is a 19-year-old girl and a bot­tle of Viagra.”

Hell is one of my uncle’s favorite words.  When he uses it, it is not so much an exple­tive as it is a preg­nant pause.  Bill is full of con­tra­dic­tions and a few nuggets of wis­dom inter­spersed with a whole lot of non­sense.  Bill is at once a dot­ing grand­fa­ther who attend­ed every one of his grandson’s high school bas­ket­ball games and a guy who has run a batch of White Light­en­ing up from South Car­oli­na once or twice, a guy who rais­es pink peonies in his back­yard and a guy who real­ly wouldn’t mind sell­ing you a Per­co­cet, if you hap­pen to be in the mar­ket for one.  And, though he loves dogs more than just about any­one I know, Bill was the town dog catch­er for years.

This is my ear­li­est mem­o­ry of Bill: I am five or six years old, sit­ting on my grand­par­ents’ brown sofa.  My broth­er is beside me, and I am wear­ing my favorite paja­mas.  They are white with tiny red flow­ers all over them.  My bare feet are propped on the cof­fee table beside a jel­ly glass­es full of Trop­i­cana.  We are watch­ing The Flint­stones while my grand­moth­er cooks break­fast, and the smell of sausage seeps through the par­ti­tion sep­a­rat­ing the kitchen and liv­ing room.  My grand­fa­ther has already been out to water his gar­den, and now he is sit­ting in his reclin­er beside us.  He is wear­ing old gray work pants, a cream-col­ored but­ton-down shirt, and navy blue slip­pers, and he is sit­ting with one leg thrown over the arm of the chair.  One arm is tilt­ed over his head, and he rubs his hand back and forth over his shaved head.  It makes a tiny scratch­ing noise.  Sud­den­ly, we hear a rum­bling in the dis­tance, com­ing clos­er.  It rolls up Tram­mel and then down Lit­tle Oak Street.  My grand­fa­ther stops rub­bing his head and looks out the window.

Well, hell,” he says. “There’s old Bill.”

Hubert!” my grand­moth­er calls from the kitchen.  “Go outside!”

There is the hiss of raw eggs hit­ting the hot fry­ing pan as my grand­fa­ther heads for the base­ment door.  I run to my grand­par­ents’ bed­room.  From their win­dow, I see Bill’s white truck come to a stop in the dri­ve.  The truck belongs to the town, and it has black let­ter­ing on the driver’s side.  In the truck bed is a large box with a wire mesh front.  I try not to look, but it is like try­ing not to stare at someone’s wan­der­ing eye or hand­less arm. My eyes keep drift­ing back to the crate, search­ing for a glimpse of an ear or a tail.  Bill’s legs spill from the cab—long, lean legs in bag­gy overalls.

Bill was born 86 years ago on a snowy Feb­ru­ary day in the Sandy Mush com­mu­ni­ty of Bun­combe Coun­ty.  His fam­i­ly soon moved to Hay­wood Coun­ty, where his dad farmed and worked at the paper mill.  The youngest of sev­en chil­dren, Bill was always a mis­chie­vous kid.  He got into plen­ty of trou­ble but he always seemed to be able to talk his way out of it.

Bill mar­ried a local girl, a blue-eyed blonde named Mar­garet, whose father farmed and ran a pro­duce stand.  Bill and Mar­garet had raised their fam­i­ly on the thir­ty acres on New­found Gap that Margaret’s par­ents gave them.  Back then, the hills were full of cat­tle and hors­es.  Now, sev­er­al years after Margaret’s death, pink and pur­ple rhodo­den­drons cov­er the moun­tain­side as far as you can see.

One day last spring, my cousin, Gail, called my moth­er with news that Bill had been diag­nosed with a malig­nant tumor in his neck, a metas­ta­sis from the prostate can­cer the doc­tors dis­cov­ered over a year ago. I drove to his house, and as soon as my car came to a stop in the dri­ve, a hound dog began cir­cling my car and howl­ing.  A Bor­der Col­lie slunk through the rhodo­den­dron bush­es on the hill above us.

Bill has had dogs his whole life—multiple dogs at one time—hunting dogs, mainly—rough and wiry dogs that could, for the most part, with­stand coun­try life.  He has a spe­cial fond­ness for Jack Rus­sells and once gave me a pup­py from the lit­ter of his favorite one, a stocky, strong-willed dog he named Peanut.  Bill’s cur­rent favorite dog is the sleek, tri-col­ored hound he named Ham­mer.  Bill got Ham­mer for his grand­son to use as a hunt­ing dog, and when Ham­mer proved to be an inept hunter, Bill kept him any­way and loved him espe­cial­ly, like a par­ent dot­ing on a par­tic­u­lar­ly dull child.

Ham­mer hates me,” I com­plained as Bill stepped onto the front porch.

Bill was wear­ing over­alls over a flan­nel shirt.  His hair was shaved close to his head.

Aww, he don’t hate you,” he assured me, shoot­ing a stream of tobac­co through his teeth.

The dog raced toward me, howl­ing, turn­ing away at the last minute and dart­ing under a near­by bush.  I had promised my moth­er I wouldn’t men­tion the tumor unless Bill men­tioned it to me first, so we walked togeth­er through his yard, admir­ing the ros­es that he start­ed from a cut­ting some­one gave him forty years ago.

You know you don’t pull the bugs off those?” he asked me, pinch­ing a tight bud between his fin­gers. “If you do, they won’t bloom.”

There is a spring that runs down the moun­tain and spills into the gul­ley beneath the bank.  It was sud­den­ly so qui­et that I could hear the spring water hit­ting the rocks below.  I turned to look for Ham­mer, and he was slink­ing slow­ly toward me.  All quiv­ery mus­cles and wet nose, he crouched by my foot and sniffed my pants leg. Then he began yap­ping again.

That dog barked for five hours straight one night,” Bill said proud­ly.  “Lat­er, I found the neighbor’s cat dead at the foot of the hill.  I guess he killed it.”

Wow,” I said.

The doc­tor says I’ve got can­cer in my neck,” Bill told me sud­den­ly.  “Right here.”

He rubbed a spot just below his ear.

I sure hate to hear that, Bill,” I said.

Yep,” he said.

A shad­ow crossed the back lawn and dis­ap­peared over the bank—a red-tailed hawk.

Back in the house, Bill offered me a beer.  It was 11 a.m.  I told him I wasn’t much of a beer drinker, that I tend to pre­fer a good class of wine.

Did you ever try any of that North Car-lina wine?” he asked.

Now when peo­ple from around here—and I mean, peo­ple real­ly from around here—say “North Car­oli­na,” they often roll over the “o” like it doesn’t exist. “North Car-lina,” they say, which is how Bill says it.  Before I could fin­ish shak­ing my head, Bill was out of his reclin­er, head­ed to the kitchen to pour me a glass of Duplin Hat­teras Red. As I sipped from a juice glass, he held up the bot­tle and point­ed to the light­house on the label.

See?” he asked, as if the point could not be over­stat­ed.  “This is from North Car-lina.”

From the liv­ing room sofa, I watched Ham­mer sit­ting at the front door, his black, wet nose pressed to the glass, while Bill told me how sick he had got­ten from his pain med­i­cine the day before.

Hey, you want to see it?” Bill asked.

Sure,” I said.

Bill dis­ap­peared into a back room and returned with a yel­low pill bot­tle filled with Per­co­cet.  He hand­ed it to me.

That cost me $26, with Medicare and my insur­ance,” he said.  “How much do you think one of them pills costs?”

I read the label.  There were eighty pills in the bot­tle.  I men­tal­ly did the math and gave him an approx­i­mate answer.

Are you going to take the rest of these?” I asked.

Hell, no!” he said.  “Them things will kill you!”

Con­vers­ing with my uncle is like com­pet­ing in some grand word game with con­stant­ly evolv­ing para­me­ters.  Only Bill knows the rules.  But occa­sion­al­ly I take a stab at it, try to catch Bill off guard.

I’ll tell you what,” I offered.  “I’ll take them down and try to sell them on the street down there in Can­ton.  What­ev­er I make, we’ll split 50/50.”

Well,” he said, grin­ning slightly.

The next time I vis­it­ed, a cou­ple of weeks lat­er, I asked him if he had been tak­ing his medicine.

Hell, no,” he told me.  “I done moved that stuff.”

His pok­er face was flaw­less, per­fect­ly ren­dered from over eighty years of prac­tice.  Now, with­out pause or tran­si­tion, Bill was expound­ing on anoth­er of his favorite topics—how skim milk is a lead­ing cause of the dis­in­te­gra­tion of soci­ety as we now know it.

Shit, I won’t touch that stuff,” he said.

I men­tioned that I some­times drink it, not so much because I like it but because it has few­er calo­ries than reg­u­lar milk.  He leaned for­ward in his chair.

Hell­fire,” he said.  “I bet you 100 dol­lars I can drink one milk­shake a day and eat five can­dy bars every day for two weeks straight and not gain more than two pounds.”

I was about to con­sid­er tak­ing him up on it, but then I thought again of the mani­la fold­er lying on the chair on the porch.  Ear­li­er, Bill had brought it to me.

Here,” he said.  “Read that.”

The fold­er con­tained a series of MRI scans and a long report full of med­ical jar­gon, most of which I did not under­stand.  But I got the gist of it.

86-year-old male,” the report said, “hx of prostate cancer…one kidney…spot on lung…malignant lymph gland tumor…”

Bill watched my face while I read.  I care­ful­ly placed the papers back in the fold­er and returned it to him.  It was my turn to show my pok­er face.

I don’t know what all that means,” I said.

Which was true.  The oth­er truth was that, even faced with the hard facts, the evi­dence sup­port­ed by dark film­strips marred by omi­nous white spots, I still found it impos­si­ble to pic­ture Bill as sick or frail or even old.  In my eyes, he was—and would always be—a rene­gade, the moon­shine-drink­ing, over­all-wear­ing, dog-catch­ing James Dean of my youth.

Sev­er­al years ago, not long before my grand­fa­ther died, my son, a fourth grad­er, and I went to vis­it my grand­par­ents.  When I got there, my grand­fa­ther was sit­ting in his reclin­er, and Bill was sit­ting on the sofa next to him.  Even at age eighty, Bill was still rugged­ly hand­some, tall and slim, wear­ing blue jeans and a red L.L. Bean jack­et, his hair flecked only with spots of grey.

Look who’s here,” my grand­fa­ther said as I walked in.

Hey, there, Bill.  How are you?” I asked.

Why, you, dirty rat,” he said.

This was how Bill had greet­ed me ever since he gave me that Jack Rus­sell pup­py.  It was one of his favorite con­ver­sa­tion pieces, how he was going to take back the dog since I didn’t vis­it him often enough.

He was just ask­ing about you before you got here,” my grand­fa­ther told me.

He was?”

Yeah.  He said, ‘Where in the hell is that damn Jennifer?’”

Bill wiped a trick­le of tobac­co juice off the side of his mouth with the back of his hand and spit into the paper cup beside him.

How’s that dog I gave you?” he asked me.

He’s a great dog,” I assured him.  “My very favorite.”

What’d I tell you?” he asked.

Then turn­ing to my son who was sit­ting beside him, Bill said, “You look like a girl with that long hair.  You know that?  Just like a girl.”

My son smiled, shrugged his shoul­ders at me.

You know I’m almost eighty year old?” Bill asked me.

I can’t believe that,” I said.

Well, I am.”

I remem­ber like it was yes­ter­day the night when he was born,” my grand­fa­ther speaks up.  “It was Feb­ru­ary, and cold, with snow all over the ground.  My moth­er turned me and my broth­ers out of the house.  I wasn’t no more than sev­en, but we always had to leave when there was a birthin’ goin’ on.  We walked sev­er­al miles in that snow to our aunt’s house.”

He paused.

I still hold that against him,” he said, look­ing at me but point­ing to Bill.

As the men talked, I lis­tened hard to their voic­es, to that old moun­tain way of speak­ing, the slow, gen­tle flow of words, the long, cav­ernous paus­es.  Bill told us about his job at the local dry clean­ers, the lat­est “girl” he had been see­ing since his wife died, his grandson’s lat­est bas­ket­ball stats.

Is he tall?” I asked Bill of his grandson.

6’2”, and he’s only 15,” Bill said.

He’s like our dad­dy,” my grand­fa­ther said.

How tall was he?” I asked.

Bill said he was almost sev­en feet, that leg­end in town has it that one day a man actu­al­ly sprained his neck from look­ing up at their dad­dy for too long.  That man had to wear a neck brace for months after­ward, he said.

Was he real­ly that tall, Papaw?” I asked my grandfather.

Well, I tell you, Dad­dy looked just like that one there,” he said. “When you’re lookin’ at him, you’re a’lookin’ at Daddy.”

Bill stood and put his spit cup down, a sign that he was ready to leave.  My grand­fa­ther rose and head­ed toward the front door to walk him out.  Bill head­ed toward the base­ment door.

Where’re you goin’?” Bill asked.

Well…outside,” my grand­fa­ther said.  “Ain’t you leavin’?”

Yeah.  Do you wan­na go out the front?” Bill asked.

Well, no,” my grand­fa­ther said, “but I thought you might want to.”

Why in the world would I want to go out front?”

Well,” my grand­fa­ther said.  “You might fall goin’ down those stairs.”

Fall?  I might fall?  You’re the old man!  You might fall!”

Hell, I’m not gonna fall,” my grand­fa­ther said, still stand­ing by the front door.

Hell, I could tap dance down them stairs!” Bill said, shuf­fling his feet back and forth across the car­pet, then throw­ing one leg high in the air.

My grand­fa­ther slow­ly crossed the car­pet, then felt for the knob on the base­ment door.  He turned it, and togeth­er he and Bill descend­ed into the dark­ness below.

Jen­nifer McGaha's work has recent­ly appeared or is forth­com­ing in the North Car­oli­na Lit­er­ary Review, New South­ern­er, Wilder­ness House Lit­er­ary Review, Pis­gah Review, Moon­shine Review, Red Wheel­bar­row, Smoky Moun­tain Liv­ing Mag­a­zine, and an anthol­o­gy, Echoes across the Blue Ridge: Sto­ries, Essays and Poems by Writ­ers Liv­ing in and Inspired by the South­ern Appalachi­an Moun­tains.  Jen­nifer also serves as non­fic­tion edi­tor of the Pis­gah Review, a nation­al lit­er­ary mag­a­zine based at Bre­vard Col­lege in Bre­vard, North Carolina.

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4 Responses to Rounder, non-fiction by Jennifer McGaha

  1. J.M. says:

    Excel­lent and very mov­ing. I could read a nov­el about your uncle Bill and your grand­fa­ther. Thank-you for shar­ing this with the world.

  2. Glenda Beall says:

    Won­der­ful por­tray­al of this man, Bill, and the love the nar­ra­tor had for him comes through with­out her say­ing it.

  3. Jim Nichols says:

    Real­ly enjoyed this. Well done!

  4. Alice says:

    This is such a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten sto­ry. I remem­ber many Uncles Bills and Grand­pas in my life grow­ing up in the south. They weren't per­fect, but they were real and I miss them.

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