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.
“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.”
“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.