“When a man dies, he deserves a send off,” Uncle Jim declared over the phone.

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            Of course he does.  I knew that.  What I couldn’t figure out was why it had to involve marching out into the weeds, shooting everything larger than a tick, and getting dead drunk.

            But grandpa did that in honor of every male relation he’d ever even heard of, much less met, and we couldn’t possibly break the tradition.

            “It’s just that he was, well. . . .” I hesitated.

            “He was kin.  What else you need to know?”

            Nothing, that’s what.  In the Wilkerson family and associated branches, you could be a drunkard (he was), a two-timing skunk (ditto), and an all-around sour old cuss (yes), but that all important strand of DNA was the only thing that mattered.

            So I packed up a bottle of twelve-year-old Scotch and the strongest bug spray I could find and headed for the hills.

            Middle Tennessee is crossed from the southwest to the northeast by densely forested ridges and valleys, and the landscape from Chattanooga to Pikeville was painted in the yellow and orange and red of autumn after a rainy summer.

            At least, it was when I wasn’t being shown the chrome and Bondo of the monster trucks that whipped around my responsible Prius.

            Grandpa spent his final days in a cabin at the end of a line of ruts and washouts.  Some roads have signs warning about there being no shoulder.  This one had a house at the start with a great neon sign to tell the world that “SINNERS HAVE NO HOPE!”  It’s good to have neighbors, I suppose.  The stunning light did clarify the way in the dimness of early evening.

            But it was a sinner that I was here to celebrate.  I parked between two giant pines, the only space left, what with the two trucks and a stationwagon already there.  I got out, and my feet pressed into the soft bed of needles on the ground.

            “Perfessor!  You made it,” Uncle Jim shouted from the porch.

            “I made it.”  In body, but not in spirit, I wanted to add, but left that thought unstated.

            “Get in here, and work on gettin’ drunk.”

            Uncle, being the type to do as he said, moved in a cloud of rye fumes, but he managed to carry my suitcase.  He peered at the bottle of Scotch that he let me take in myself.

            “That there’s some antsy-fancy hooch.”  He leaned in to eye the label.  “Eighty proof—that’ll get the job done.”

            What could I add to such wisdom?

            The interior of the cabin was one large space with a stove and refrigerator on one side and cots spread out against the other.  The heads of dead animals glared at me from each wall.  My family lounged underneath on lawn chairs, a recliner, and one massive and ratty couch.  Flead, Grandpa’s elderly Lab, sauntered over and licked my hand.

            “Tony!” my sister, Gretchen, called out.  She jumped up and came to wrap herself around me.  Bill, her mountain gorilla of a husband, lumbered along and offered his hand.

            After extricating myself, I found a chair and got planted.

            Uncle Jim resumed his recliner and winked at me.  “We was just conversatin’ about Dad’s favorite subject.”

            Oh, no.  Even the delusions that men believe live after them.

            “I still don’t see why they ain’t called Bigfeet.”  Gretchen swigged her Budweiser to emphasize her point.

            “What you got to say ’bout that, Perfessor?” Jim asked.

            “My field’s geology, not English.  If you find a fossil in the ground, I can tell you how old it is, but—”

            “I like to hear ’bout the Rock of Ages more than the age of rocks,” Aunt Sue declared.

            “Quoting William Jennings Bryan.”  I’d just driven through Dayton, so the Scopes case was on my mind.  With talk of ape men and rocks, we verged dangerously on the edge of retrying it that night.

            Bill changed the subject.  “I don’t guess it matters none how they got here.  I’d still like to mount one like that grizzly bear they have in the lobby of Outdoor World.”

            “I wonder what they taste like,” Gretchen informed us.

            I opened my bottle of Scotch.  This was going to be a long night.

            “I hear tell a’ people eatin’ monkey brains over in France or somewhere like that,” Sue said.  “Still, every story ’bout a Bigfoot makes ’em out to be smelly.”

            “Cain’t be worse than Flead here.”  Bill took his hand off the dog’s head and sniffed it.

            Jim shook his head.  “Y’all don’t get it.  Huntin’ ain’t about eatin’ ’n’ taxidermy.  There’s been many a time when I was out all day in the woods and didn’t shoot nothin’.”  He sipped from his glass of rye.

            “Then what’s it about?” Sue asked.

            “It’s bein’ out in the land.  It’s a day without wearin’ a tie.  It’s a day chasin’ after somethin’ that’s better than us.”

            There it was, the old-time religion.  I’d heard this sermon my whole life, but somehow, I never could believe.  My father tried to baptize me in the spirit , but he died when I was eight, and Mom moved us to be near her parents in Chicago.  Since then, I only touched a gun at gatherings of the Wilkerson clan.

            But maybe some measure of the good news had reached my soul.  I had moved back to teach in Tennessee, and I did most of my field work in the Permian layers of the Appalachians.  The rocks of ages, indeed.

            “Perfessor, what’cha studyin’ on?”

            “Hunting.”  I raised my glass.

            Jim raised his own.  “I knowed you’d come around some day.  D’you get somethin’ to eat already?”

            “I ate before I came.  I had to finish up work at the college, so I knew I’d be late.”

            “That’s good.”  My uncle yawned.  “We’d better hit the hay.  Mornin’ comes early.”

            I finished my glass and stood to get my bag.  After my turn in the bathroom, I found an empty cot.  Sue was snoring already, and Gretchen and Bill argued about something as they always did.  Jim winked at me when I looked at him, and I pulled the blanket over me.

            The next morning, I awoke with a start.  The air was thick with the smell of coffee and frying bacon.  I sat up and rubbed my eyes.

            Gretchen had her pillow over her head, and Bill coughed and stretched a hand toward his pack of cigarettes on the nightstand.  A rectangle of light framed the bathroom door, so Sue was up.

            “Mornin’,” Jim called out from beside the stove.  “Y’all so slow, you couldn’t catch a disease in Tijuana with a hundred dollar bill taped to your foreheads.”

            I threw off the blanket and stood.  A large plate of scrambled eggs sat on the counter, and a pot of grits bubbled on the back burner.  This was the breakfast of the South.

            First came coffee.  Well, a stretch before that to stir the alcohol remaining in my system and then a cup of caffeine.

            “It ain’t Starbucks, but it’ll get you goin’,” Jim said.  He turned the bacon in the pan, the grease spitting.

            Bill groaned.  “What time is it?”  An acrid stream of cheap tobacco smoke rose from his head.

            “Early,” Jim answered, “and you’re lucky.  You got the whole day ahead of you.”

            Through an eastern window, the faint periwinkle light of dawn opened across the sky.  I got busy setting the table, while sneaking looks at Jim.  His father was gone.  His own children were scattered on winds of their choosing.  And yet here he was, doing the job that had to be done.

            When the food was ready and all of us were in our seats, Jim at the head of the table, he took my hand on his left and Sue’s on his right.

            “We thank you, Lord, for the blessings that you give, and we eat this food to do your will, for Chrissake—”

            “Amen,” we all said.  I said it to be polite, but a part of me remembered when I believed.  It was a slender thread through time, one that I couldn’t cut.

            We passed the serving dishes and dug in.  Jim cleared his throat.

            “The first time Dad took me out to look for Bigfoot, I was six.  I figgered it was some kind’a monkey like I’d seen at the zoo.  Then he told me they grow up to be ten foot tall with long arms and stringy fur.  I like to peed myself thinkin’a runnin’ into that.  Course, he also told me that Dannel Boone shot one.  He called it a Yahoo.  That made me feel better, ’cause I always did love stories about him.”

            “A Yahoo?”  I hadn’t heard that before.  “From Gulliver’s Travels?”

            “Boone read that book to his men, so I’d guess so.”

            Bill looked up from his plate.  “You mean that Jack Black movie?  That was a good’un.”

            Jim sipped his coffee, and I bit my tongue.  My uncle isn’t an educated man, but he reads deeply the books he loves.  He never could figure out what Gretchen saw in Bill, and I’m not sure she does, either.

            Of course, Jim’s shaken his head at some of the things I’ve done over the years.  That’s his way, but he always offers a hand up to anyone who asks for it.

            We finished breakfast and carted our dishes to the sink.  Sue moved to wash them, but Jim stopped her.

            “Let it be for a while.  We got somethin’ to do first.”

            I hadn’t noticed the bottle of Jack Daniel’s Black Label on the counter near the door, having been preoccupied by Scotch and relatives, but there it stood.  Jim collected it and led us out to the patch of grass in front of the cabin.  He stood next to a card table with a tool box resting on it.

            “This was Dad’s favorite.  He always said Heaven wouldn’t allow it, and it’d be too expensive in Hell.  This one’s for you, Dad.”  He twisted off the cap and poured three quarters of a liter of whiskey into the loam of Bledsoe County.

            The last drops fell from the mouth, and he took the bottle over to plant it on a plot of turned earth ten yards away.

            He came back to the table and opened the box.  “Dad didn’t get his tomatoes in this year, so this ain’t gonna be a problem.”

            Bill got in line first, and the rest of us fell in behind.  Jim glanced at him and frowned, but handed him a large black pistol and a set of ear plugs.  One by one, each of my relatives was armed.

            When it came my turn, Jim took out the .22 revolver that he’d had me shoot for years.

            “You remember the four rules?”

            “As taught to us by Saint Jeff of the Corps?” I asked, my hand over my heart.

            “Good enough.”

            We spread out in a row and faced the condemned, the bottle having been found guilty of being empty.

            Jim pulled his .45 from under his shirt and took aim.  “With me!”

            Round after round shattered the glass, as fast as we could empty the guns.  Jim picked up a spare magazine, reloaded his gun—no, his piece, as he’s told me to call it on many occasions—and slipped it back into its holster.  The rest of us returned ours to the table.

            He looked up at the sky.  “Well, Dad, I hope that’s enough noise to impress your neighbors.”

            Sue patted him on the shoulder and led Gretchen back into the cabin.  The next part of the send-off was a hike up on the ridge behind the property.  Jim’s rule was that anyone who didn’t come back bloody didn’t have any fun.  It was a rite out of the ancient days, but contemplating the anthropology of it didn’t make my skin feel any better about doing it.

            The path upward had been worn by generations of Wilkerson feet and seasons of gully washers.  I knew every inch of the hard-packed brown earth and exposed chunks of limestone, at least to the top, thanks to the passing of too many uncles, great uncles, and one father who left before his time.  What lay beyond had been different with each memorial.

            Jim turned around.  “I say, Perfessor, your body’s here, but your mind’s somewhere else.”

            “I was recalling previous hikes up here.”

            He nodded and headed back up.  As far apart as an outsider might think my uncle and me to be, there were plenty of subjects that required only a word about it for everything to be said that needed saying between us.

            Trying to be in the moment, I knelt beside a Jack-in-the-Pulpit on the edge of the trail.  Farther up, Bill leaned heavily into a tree, smoking a cigarette.  Jim looked at him and then back at me.

            “I’m glad I gave that up,” he said to the plant.  “It was on this path that I knew I had to.  I couldn’t catch my breath on the climb up to see the dawn.”

            The cigarette finished, Bill crushed it under his foot and started up again.  Jim and I followed.  The ground levelled, and the path widened.  My uncle walked next to me.

            “How you been since Adrianne left?”

            “I don’t know,” I told him.  “One day to the next, I go up and down.”

            “She was a city woman.  There ain’t no tellin’ what they’ll do.”

            I smiled at him.  What he said felt true, even though it didn’t seem to fit my life.  I was a city person, wasn’t I?

            No, that wasn’t right.  I was more like a Jack-in-the-Pulpit, transplanted into someone’s garden and doing well, but not really in place.

            “What’s he doin’ now?” Jim asked, pulling me out of my thoughts.

            Ahead of us, Bill stood rocking the remnant trunk of a dead tree.  “Come help, y’all.  I almost got it over.”

            Jim held out his hand, but I was in no hurry to join my brother-in-law.

            The tree crashed into the exposed limestone of the ridge.  Bill turned toward us and cackled.  “Timber!”

            A second passed, and he slapped his side.  Then his arm.


            Jim pushed me back.

            “Run, Tony.”

            “But—” I protested.


            I didn’t have to be told a third time.  Sounds filled my ears as I ran between the boulders and across the flaking rock—angry buzzing at the top, my uncle’s shouts down the trail, Bill’s yelps.

            Even though my breath came in gasps, I did the best quarter mile of my life that day.  Looking down at the bottom of the ridge, I caught sight of Jim helping Bill walk toward the cabin.  They were out of danger.  The yellowjackets had chosen me.

            A path descended the far side.  I plunged into the trees, stumbling and running toward a stream with a dense patch of white pines on either side.

            When I hit the bed of needles, my feet flung out ahead of me, dumping me on my butt.  I slid into the frigid water.  My lungs seized, and I forced myself to turn over and lift up to suck in air.

            The reek of oily hair assaulted my nose and throat.  A little above me, where the rocks intervened to form a small pool, a mass of stringy fur crouched on the bank, staring at me.

            In that moment with the adrenaline clearing my system, it wasn’t the sight of Bigfoot that astonished me.  My spinning brain had no problem with that.  Grandpa had insisted he’d seen them, and we believed him—some of us by pretending and some out of conviction.  No, it was the glint of light at the water’s edge.  The creature held a pint bottle of Jack Daniel’s between its feet.

            My God, he had seen them.  Grandpa never went hiking in these woods without a pint of his favorite.  Crazy images of him sitting down to share a drink with Sasquatch swirled through me.

            It sniffed the air, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t nod at me before taking up its bottle and disappearing through the trees.

            Could it tell by my scent that I was related to its friend?

            That was nonsense.  It had to be.  I insisted that I was a scientist, that I must be hallucinating.

            But there, down on all fours, muddy and sodden with icy water, I couldn’t quite make the claim on rationality that I could back in my neat office at the college.

            Not knowing how long it would take the angry insects to calm down, I chose the longer path around where the river flowed through a gap about a mile to the southwest.  That wasn’t just for the yellowjackets.  I stood and stared at the top of the ridge.  I needed time to contemplate believing before I took on the easy beliefs of my relatives.

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