Out of the Kentucky Hills


by Tim Bass

M y college roommate had this trap. I had never seen a trap of any kind other than a mouse trap, because I was a city boy, and this trap, my roommate's trap, which he kept in his corner of our dorm room, frightened me. The thing lay broad and long, a threatening mouth of cast-iron teeth with dull points and rusty springs. To me, it appeared the trap had spent many a winter in the woods, clamping shut on the hooves or feet or paws of whatever beast bumbled into it.

The roommate called himself Jed. I had never known a real person named Jed, only on television, and every time I heard it I thought of Jed from The Beverly Hillbillies. When roommate Jed got on the phone with a girl—he did this a lot in those early days, and he always started off saying, "Yo, babe, Jed here"—I would picture Jed from TV, Jed Clampett, dialing up teen-aged girls in the neighboring dorm. As roommate Jed made his date plans for the kegger of the night, I imagined TV Jed with his ratty hat and 'coon rifle, rounding up a partner for a square dance.

"What kind of trap is that?" I asked roommate Jed on move-in day, after my parents joined all the other moms and dads and went home to their empty nests. My mother had told me to find out about the trap right away, because if Jed was a weirdo, I needed to get busy finding another roommate. My father said not to worry, Jed was probably just an artist.

Jed told me it was a bear trap.

"A Number 15, made by Denali Fur—primo trap," he said, and he pulled the thing open and locked it into place, as he felt I weren't impressed enough already. "Weighs twenty-four pounds and got a twelve-inch jaw spread. This sucker can get the job done. I've snagged me four bear with it, plus two turkeys and a razorback hog."

I told him the only wild animals within miles of our campus were blue jays and feral cats.

Jed said he didn't plan to trap any game while he was in college.

"I just brung it for luck," he said.

Luck. Seeing it now, years later, luck looks like an odd word. We were eighteen years old, just starting college. We had not wound up in the military or in the factories or in jail. We weren't wandering our hometowns with nothing to do and no plan for the future. Instead, we had come to college with nothing to do and no plan for the future. All along, we had expected to be here and expected our parents to pay for the ride, four more automatic years of school so we could find ourselves, even though we didn't know we were lost. We told our families and guidance counselors we wanted college for a serious academic challenge and a diverse intellectual environment. In truth, we wanted serious parties and any sex we could get. So there we stood, at the starting line with the whole wide road stretched out before us, free and clear. And still we thought we needed luck. The two Jeds found it in their weapons of the woods. TV Jed went out shootin' at some food, and up through the ground come a bubblin' crude. Roommate Jed had his bear trap.

* * *

Roommate Jed's real name was not Jed. It was Henry J. Edgeworth, and I knew for certain the J did not stand for Jed or Jedediah but for Jefferson, because I looked through his wallet. This happened on the morning after our first night at college. We had spent the evening at a weenie roast organized by the Department of Residence Life, a highly energetic group of good-looking people who were supposed to keep us from getting homesick and bailing out. We sat around a fire pit in the campus nature preserve and swatted mosquitoes while we introduced ourselves in alphabetical order: Jennifer somebody from Orlando; Jennifer somebody else from a little town in Missouri; Jennifer Dawson from just north of Atlanta and her roommate, Jennifer Lawson from the same place; a bunch of guys whose names I forgot as soon as they said them; three other girls, two named Jennifer and one named Jessica; then me; and finally my roommate, Henry J. Edgeworth, who announced, "I'm Jed from Kentucky. Hill country. Grew up fishin' and trappin'. My granddaddy made moonshine. I'm the first one in my family to ever go to college. Fact, I'm the first one in my family to ever make it out of Kentucky." Everybody laughed. A couple of the Jennifers nudged each other, clearly giddy over the prospect of loving a man who stalked his own dinner, a real man, not a boy like those they left behind in high school. Jed nodded to the group, then sat down and barehanded a hot dog over the fire, just as TV Jed certainly would have done if he had ever gone to a college weenie roast.

The next morning, as roommate Jed showered, I found his wallet and solved the mystery for myself: Henry Jefferson Edgeworth IV of 1211 Montclair Court, Auburn Hills, Michigan, an affluent suburb of Detroit. I also found a membership card for the Lexus owners club and a pocket-sized guide to good golf swings.

* * *

I knew Jed's secret, but I didn't expose him. We had been in college not yet two days, and already I had seen people slipping new identities on for size—introverts in pastels auditioning for bids from the Greeks, or those who went the other way and wore all black as they tried hard to look like they didn't care about trying. Several freshmen went to a shack down the road and got tattoos in obvious places. One guy showed up with a newly pierced tongue and lisped that, no, the things had not gone out of style. Half the campus appeared to be smoking cigarettes for the first time. Next to these posers and wannabes, hayseed Jed came off as an original.

Certainly, he was better at faking it than I was. Like everyone else at my college, I had arrived with a dream to be different. College itself had nothing to do with it. What mattered was that this was a new place, far from our high schools and the baggage of our pasts—our nicknames and reputations, our grotesque stupidities and disastrous love lives. College gave us the coveted blank slate, the freedom not so much to become someone new as to be the people we were all along, just never when anyone was watching. I dared myself to break free of my cautious outer shell, to stop second-guessing myself and have some reckless fun every once in a while. So far, though, all I had managed was to drop the last two letters of my name, so I was no longer little Bobby from grade school but Bob. College Bob. It didn't matter. Everybody knew me simply as Jed's roommate, and in most ways I was still the same anonymous kid I had been in high school. I settled for watching Jed operate, and wondering when the others would see through his clich├ęs and bad acting.

He played the bumpkin to get girls, and it worked. During the first week of school, he introduced himself to hordes of girls. He collected their phone numbers in a leather pouch he claimed he had used for storing snake rattles and possum teeth. Early each evening he made his calls, the ones that began, "Yo, baby. Jed here. Let's party," and I imagined gray-haired TV Jed saying, "Yo, baby. Jed here. I'm a hundred years old, but you and me gonna party tonight." When roommate Jed got an answering machine, he left a message and moved on to the next number from his pouch. He worked the law of inevitability—if he phoned enough girls, sooner or later one would answer and say yes to Jed from the Big Frontier. The guy was a transparent fraud, but his yokel act played on our campus in those first exhilarating days of the first semester of our first year. He had brung his luck, and it worked.

For one week.

* * *

Late one night, long after the dorm had dropped off to sleep, I awoke to giggles, followed by a vicious squeak, followed by a piercing screech. The lights flashed on and I saw one of the Jennifers from just north of Atlanta pulling her sweatshirt over her head, though I could not tell on or off, or which Jennifer, Dawson or Lawson, while roommate Jed danced wildly across the floor on one foot and behind him dragged the other leg, from which dangled the bear trap, a Denali Fur Number 15 with a twelve-inch jaw spread. The teeth had dug into the skin about calf-high, and blood streamed down Jed's leg and onto the carpet. He grabbed for the Jennifer's arm and moaned, "Yo, babe. Jed's hurt. Call for help."

A Resident Assistant came, followed by the campus cops and an ambulance and every sleepy student in our dorm. The paramedics decided Jed's leg was not broken. The trap's blow had been buffered by his boxer shorts, which were bunched below his knees. They tried to unhook the trap, but it kept snapping shut—that sucker really could get the job done—and each time Jed yowled in agony. Finally, one of the medics told Jed they didn't know enough about bears to set him free right then, so they heaved him onto a stretcher and hauled him off to the emergency room, trap and all.

The next day, the people from the Department of Residence Life were not as friendly as they had been at the weenie roast. The director told me she could have Jed expelled, and probably me, too, for harboring a deadly weapon in our room. That's how she said it: harboring a deadly weapon, like it was a submarine. At minimum, the director said, the blood on the carpet meant we would lose our security deposit.

Then Jed's parents drove in from Auburn Hills. His mother clearly didn't know he was posing as a hillbilly, and she threatened to sue the college for putting bear traps in dorm rooms.

"What kind of backwoods school is this?" she asked.

I told her our mascot was the Grizzlies.

Jed's father, it turned out, was a surgeon, Dr. R. Jefferson Edgeworth III, a managing partner of the largest medical group in Auburn Hills. Or so he said.

One of the Jennifers asked me, "Wait, wait—didn't Jed say nobody in his family ever went to college?" Another Jennifer asked if doctors for sure had to go to college. I said yes and yes, and I could see the Jennifers' wheels turning—slowly, but still turning. That trap had caught not just Jed but also his big lie, and now his story would unravel.

The college president stepped in and brokered the peace: Dr. Edgeworth would sew up Jed's leg, the school would eat the cost of replacing the bloodied carpet, neither Jed nor I would get expelled for harboring deadly weapons, and nobody would call a lawyer. A happy ending. TV Jed would have been pleased.

* * *

Roommate Jed returned to campus in a couple of days, hobbling on crutches and still playing the role of Kentucky clodhopper. He said the bear trap had set off the hospital metal detectors and shut down some heart monitors, so a security guard threw the thing away. Jed swore that as soon as he could bend his leg, he was going back to get the trap out of the Dumpster. He needed it, he said. Bear season was coming.

I waited for what was sure to happen next—for the truth to spring on Jed and hold him fast until the light shone and all the students in the college saw the imposter who had straggled in among them.

But nothing happened. Everybody went about their business, and Jed continued being Jed out of the Kentucky hills, not Robert Jefferson Edgeworth IV of Auburn Hills, and nobody on our campus seemed to care. He never went back for his bear trap, but he never stopped talking about the way of the woods and what it took to live off the land. He kept calling girls for parties, and they kept going.

People don't change. I've heard that said many times. I don't know how the saying squares in the life of roommate Jed, who tried to change and got caught changing and changed anyway, even though no one believed him. Maybe he had been a liar all his life. In that case, he had not changed.

TV Jed never changed. When he struck oil in the woods around Bug Tussle, his kinfolk said, "Jed move away from there," so he took his fortune and headed for Beverly Hills with Granny, Jethro, and Elly May. Jed bought a mansion with a telephone and running water and a cement pond. But he never traded in his jalopy or his tattered clothes, and every time something surprised him, he said, "Well, doggies." And he always kept his rifle nearby, in case something wild wandered onto the manicured lawn.

For sure, I didn't change. College gave me the chance to transform myself, to take on a new identity. The trouble is, becoming someone different requires an idea of the person you want to be, and that means you first have to understand who you are. I tried changing for a few days. Then I abandoned the project, telling myself it took too much work. That was my first great failure in life. Or my first great success. I have never been able to decide which.


BIO: Tim Bass teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His work has appeared in Small Spiral Notebook, Fugue, Word Riot, and elsewhere.