In a family of great storytellers, Jimbo always knew how to steal the show
Rick Bragg with Snake
Credit: John Cuneo

This spring will be different.

It won't look different in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The black mules will still stand belly deep in the yellow broom sage, sniffing for the new green. Old men will wrestle their tillers across the ground, swatting at the gasoline smoke as they turn their yards into a patchwork of red dirt, buttercups, and wild green onions. Old women will watch the skies for storm clouds and the porch rafters for red wasps.

Still, it will be different, since Uncle Jimbo died. It will be quieter here.

We buried James "Jimbo" Bundrum in winter in a beautiful little cemetery in Whites Gap, Alabama, at the foot of those mountains, just west of the Alabama-Georgia line. We buried him at the edge of the old graveyard, in the shade of the woods, beside people he knew, people who shared his last name. But all I could think about was how still it was, and how it was the only time in my life I had ever been in the presence of the man and not heard a grand story, or tale, or lie.

"He was a talker," said my kinfolks, again and again, as they walked away.

He was more than that. In a whole family of great storytellers, he was the greatest. He had the power to tug a person back in time. And in that silence, I could almost hear the times change, and those bridges fall.

In his youth, he had been an MP in World War II and came home to roof a million houses. He lost two children in a house fire, and his heart broke forever. And though I cannot be sure, I think he buried that agony under his foolishness, beneath that great ability to make anyone smile. It was Jimbo who told me stories of snapping turtles as big as Volkswagens and of catfish that swallowed whole cows. He told me ghost stories that made my knees knock, told tales of run-over dogs that returned to life, and he could talk all day about snakes.

"And, hon," said his daughter, Jeanette, "some of 'em was true."

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In his old age, he loafered around, making a circuit from the old Food Outlet grocery to the cemetery to the creek banks and back again. He liked the cemetery. He told me once that it was where a man his age had to go to talk to anybody who could appreciate him.

So it is quiet now. The preacher at the graveside said he knew my uncle was saved, and that his people could take comfort in that. The last time I saw Uncle Jimbo alive, he mentioned he'd stopped lying, and then he told me about going coon hunting with his daddy, back when he was a boy, and stopping to rest on a log that turned out to be a giant snake. Then he told me about a catfish that was so big it clogged a whole creek in Whites Gap. And then he was just gone.