We were at the country house of my girlfriend at the time. She was a North Carolina debutante who had just come out and I was North Jersey whatever I am. We were with her father and two younger brothers and we were going shooting, because that is what you did on a Saturday—you got barbecue and drank sweet tea and went shooting. We were going shooting somewhere near what she said was a slave graveyard.
I was up first, her brothers giggling as the Northerner hefted the shotgun. Up went the disc. I tracked, pulled the trigger, and watched the clay pigeon explode fifty feet in the air like a dull firework.
Her father, who was standing next to me, leaned over.
“We’re gonna make a redneck out of you yet, boy.”
Senior year and my fourth south of the Mason-Dixon. I took part in a collaborative ethnography in a little town called Cowee in the mountains west of my college. My New Jersey license plates were the most conspicuous thing there. The fact I did not have some sort of Confederate Flag memorabilia on my person came in a close second in my mind.
At the sole gas station in town, the older folks would sit and drink coffee. As I drove up, they slowly set their cups down and stared, as if Eric Rudolph had decided to come down on their side of the mountain instead.
One of their own, some called him the unofficial mayor of the town, knew myself and the other student with me and introduced us. Jokingly, he added I was from the North. I stuck my hand out, an attempt at a smile on my face.
Two of the men shook my hand, said welcome, said they’d heard about what we were doing and looked forward to seeing the final product. The third, though, didn’t shake my hand. He said it was because I was a Yankee. I was never told if he was joking.
A year in Montana made me realize that the humidity didn’t have to be near one hundred percent to feel like the South. I had boots now, real ones, and occasionally wore a cowboy hat. It was as much the West as the South. On the bottoms of one brewery’s beer caps, they stated one of Montana’s unofficial nicknames. Montucky.
Living in the fourth place in as many years, I told people from New Hampshire that I grew up in North Carolina. I did, after all, come of age there. It didn’t matter to me that my permanent address was still New Jersey. I didn’t learn to drink in New Jersey. I didn’t attempt to learn to write in New Jersey. I didn’t make and lose friends and girlfriends, find mentors and lose what I thought was my life’s trajectory in New Jersey.
The New Englanders would nod and smile, say that was cool. Wicked cool. Some had been there once or twice, they’d say, to the Outer Banks. I’d nod, too, not saying I’d only been to the Outer Banks twice myself.
I was sitting on my graduate school mentor’s porch in central Florida. I had a 5k race the next morning, but he, his friend and their wives had invited me out and then back to his house to continue drinking. He poured me two and a half fingers of good bourbon. I was the only one, I came to find out, not born in the South. I was told this was redeemable. Maybe.
I mentioned the debutante. Fifty-percent Southern. I mentioned meeting and interviewing Burt Reynolds’s stunt double for Deliverance. Sixty-percent. Cowboy boots with jeans even though it was seventy-five degrees out, an appreciation for bourbon, the use of y’all in everyday speech. Sixty-five, seventy, seventy-two. I kept going until I got to ninety.
“I’ll give you ninety-percent Southern,” one of them said, tilting a half-empty Newcastle at me.