I awoke on the wrestling mat that morning, and yawned and stretched and tried to come to life. I opened my eyes and saw asbestos dangling from the ceiling, and I heard my mind humming the Dolly Parton song about getting out of bed 9 to 5 every day, and I shuddered.
The shudder was brief, and I yawned again, and brought my hands back under my head. My mind stopped humming Dolly’s voice as soon as I felt a new bump on the back of my scalp.
“Shit!” I exclaimed loudly enough to echo, even with the asbestos damping sounds.
I quickly sat upright and felt the bump with both hands, then stumbled off the mat and stumbled to the bathroom, and twisted my body to look at the back of my head. My fingers felt the familiar raised ridge of my scar and, and just below it I felt a new, small bump.
I parted my hair and forced my eyeballs as far into their corners as possible in order to verify what I knew was under the part in my hair, and after a attempting a few angles, I finally saw a raised ring of red and pink ringworm.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” I repeated through clenched teeth; I shouldn’t have fallen asleep without cleaning the mat first, and I should have washed myself after working out. And, of course, I shouldn’t have been crashing in the downtown wrestling gym instead of going to school, even though I knew I could get away with it.
I relaxed and stared into the mirror, and pondered what to do about the worm. About a second later, I noticed an odor, and I raised an arm and sniffed and decided that my first priority should be washing my arm pits and changing my shirt.
I took off my shirt and washed myself in the sink, then went to the mop closet and dipped my fingers in the supposed fungicide. I paused, sighed, and focused on what should be done. I took a deep breath and dabbled the foul smelling liquid on the back of my head, arms, and legs; anywhere that laid against the mat last night. The fungicide reeked more than I did, but I assumed it would kill the worm, or at least teach it to camouflage itself better. I had nothing against worms. They deserved to live, too, but not at the expense of me getting a date for prom.
I rummaged through my backpack for a cleanest dirty shirt and put it on, mindlessly humming a Johny Cash song, then mopped the mat and heard a joke in my mind about what do you call a man on your doorstep who lies there without arms or legs.
I put away the mop bucket and hid my backpack behind the fungicide and tool my helmet and letterman jacket into the alley and started my motorcycle. A few minutes later, I was flying over Baton Rouge on the raised interstate, like a parasite on the scalp of downtown, and headed towards the airport.
I was hungry, but I reminded myself that I had been cutting weight all season without noticing it, so now shouldn’t be differnt. But hunger was louder when there wasn’t a tournament to focus on and drown out a grumbling stomach. I became lost in thought as usual after that long of leaning into the wind, until I saw the sign for Scotlandville.
“Shit!” I said into my helmet face shield. I had passed the airport exit again that week.
My irritation increased as I got off the interstate and navigated through the Scotlandville neighborhood to get back on I-110 towards the airport. I navigated the streets carefully, partly because they were full of potholes and partly because people stared at me from the porches of Scotlandville’s tightly packed houses. I imagined they were wondering what a white boy was doing there; or, my bright orange Belaire High letterman jacket attracted attention, especially when most kids my age where in school by mid-morning. But, in a way, because it was the segregated South, a local high school jacket was a sign of your race, even under an opaque motorcycle face shield. It might have well been gang colors of a yet unknown intention, and people stared from their porches at the bright orange jacket, with a blue letter B on front, and a giant skull and magician’s top hat from Slash, of Guns-N-Roses, hand-sewn across the back.
My nervousness only lasted a moment. It was a habit from when I went to Scotlandville Magnet High in the 9th grade, three years before, as part of a Baton Rouge bussing program to meet federal integration lawsuits. I was asked to never return to Scotlandville Magnet High School, partly because of a shirt I wore.
It began soon after my dad was arrested. I was rebellious and skipped school with friends who rode motorcycles. I had been nervous every time we left school and rode down that street, but I had been less afraid of the neighborhood than I was of being caught and expelled and having to go to Belaire, because the kids from Westdale Middle School who had bullied me went to Belaire High School, and the only reason I had agreed to ride a bus 45 minutes each way between Wendy’s house and Scotlandville Magnet High School for the Engineering Professions was to avoid Belaire.
You’ve experienced Scotlandville’s alumni if you’ve ever played the video game simulation, Sim City, which was created by a Scotlandville graduate; or if you remember the national serial killers who were trained by the Louisiana National Guard and shot people across the county with a sniper rifle. I was less infamous, but the memory of Scotlandville reminded me of one of the things my dad had said yesterday at Big Daddy’s funeral that had upset me: Fuck U.S. Actions in Panama, the shirt he had made and been suspended for wearing. I was afraid Wendy was right, that I was just like my dad.
I had been suspended from Scotlandville three years ago for wearing a shirt I made that said, “Joseph Mills is a wang.” I would later brag to friends that the principal felt I was more of a threat than serial killers. In fairness, the principal asked me to never return, but a serial killer graduated from Scotlandville; so, in a way, I told the truth. And, in fairness, no one knows if I were bullying Joseph, or reacting based on my experiences of how to communicate with other people. I had learned a lot from my dad.
That day, behind my motorcycle shield, my mind wandered. I was just like my dad, I reaffirmed myself. But I didn’t want to be, I felt. Everything’s a choice, I believed. And my mind was still frustrated by missing turns. And my ringworm itched, and I stank, and I was hungry. It had become a frustrating day.
I accelerated back onto the interstate and rev’ed the engine and drove faster than I should have, back along I-110 and towards the airport exit and Grandma Foster’s house.
About fifteen minutes and no mistakes later, I pulled into Grandma’s driveway and stopped just before her empty carport. I walked into the carport and knocked on the kitchen door.
“Grandma Foster?” I said as I opened the door. “It’s me…”
“In here, Hon,” she called from the living room.
I shut the door and was surprised, again, by the mess in Grandma’s kitchen. She had never been overly organized or clean, and I often saw the same pile of newspapers on her table and dirty dishes from last night’s dinner, but there were always walkways and places to sit for family that always seemed to stop by. That day, though, there were piles of paperwork and broken picture frames on the kitchen table, and knick knacks scattered around the floor.
I picked up a football and rotated it to read faded handwriting and a dozen or so sprawled signatures. It said, “To Ed, from the 1954 LSU Tigers.”
I didn’t know much about any sport on television, but even I knew that LSU had won the national football championships in 1954. Everyone in Baton Rouge new that. I didn’t recognize most of the faded signatures, but I saw one that said “Billy,” and figured that he must have been good back then, especially if he could tackle my dad 35 years later.
I felt that Big Daddy may have been a bigger deal back then than I realized; to me, a 1954 LSU football meant more than the key to the city that people commented on at his funeral.
“In here, Hon,” Grandma repeated, so I put the football on the table beside a broken picture frame and went into the living room. Grandma was sitting on the floor, picking up pieces of frames and chunks of sheetrock. A small hole was in the wall, and cracked sheetrock dangled into her living room, meaning someone had pulled the sheetrock backwards after punching a hole into the wall.
“They was lookin’ for Ed’s money,” she said without me needing to ask. “He weren’t buried but yesterday. They must of come here after the funeral.”
Doug had dropped her off that morning and they discovered the mess. He went to do something about it – I never learned what – and Grandma had spent the morning stacking the mess on her table so that she could walk through the house.
Everyone in America knew thatBig Daddy kept money and explosives in houses all over Baton Rouge. It wasn’t a family secret. The Time magazine articles in the 60’s talked about it, and even the 1983 movie portrayed him keeping dynamite for Hoffa. In other words, on one of the most commonly viewed movies in America in 1983, people saw hints that Big Daddy may have been involved in the Kennedy assassination. Yet no one seemed to have noticed.
Their original plan to kill Kennedy was to throw dynamite into his home. To Big Daddy’s credit, he said he refused because they could have killed Bobby’s kids by accident, and no good person killed kids. Instead, they discussed a sniper rifle and a lone gunman and a convertible; but that part didn’t make it into the movie, though it’s in the FBI reports stored in our National Archives.
But Grandma had forgotten more stories than are in the FBI reports or her son’s memoir, like that day.
I asked Grandma if she wanted me to call the police, and she said no, we don’t call police on family. They’d just ask about the money, and she had promised Bobby not to talk about the money.
Big Daddy didn’t use banks, so since the 1950’s he kept a few houses and paid rent in cash. Not even Doug new where the houses were. But we had ideas, because we knew the type of houses Big Daddy rented. One of them was across from Belaire, and for 3 years I saw it every day I was at school. I had no doubt in some of the stories about Big Daddy and Doug, his little brother.
We knew that he received a lot of cash from people in New Orleans, and that he had just spent a few years in prison for extorting $400,000 from the Baton Rouge Local #5, and that no one ever found the money, at least no one I knew about. We did know that the empty safe was found at the bottom of the Amite River, and that the witnesses were found beaten, and that the only survivor didn’t attend Big Daddy’s funeral yesterday; coincidentally or ironically, I went to Scotlandville Magnet with his grandson.
Doug said it well in his book: “You either loved him or hated him. There was no in between.” From my experience growing up in his town, I agree.
I felt neither love nor hate as I helped Grandma clean for a while. I listened to her alternate between talking about how family should know better, and crying because she missed her son. “Ed was a good boy,” she said a few times, and reminded me that I was, too, every time.
As she talked, I held one of the broken frames. I saw that the silver half dollars were missing from it. They had been the pure silver ones, from 1963 to 1968. Silver is less slippery and is easier to palm than the mixed-metal halves made after 1989.
The frame had several silver halves from each year they were made to commemorate Kennedy’s death, but they were all missing that day.
I had never paid attention to the handwritten note in the frame. I can’t remember the exact words, but it was something like, ‘Thank you for all you did, Bobby Kennedy.’
“Bobby gave that to me,” she said. “He had paid for the down payment on this house, and I called him and told him they was gonna take it. It didn’t matter that Hoffa was gone, he promised it to me, I said.”
For Grandma, “they” always meant lawyers, bankers, or police. She wasn’t afraid of any of them. Apparently, because she thought she could pick up the phone and call the President or the Attorney General – I always confused John vs. Bobby. They were like myths to me, stories grandmas tell about relatives you never knew, and I rarely asked for clarification when Grandma told her stories, because I was a kid.
“He said he’d take care of it, and he did, and he gave me that,” she pointed to the broken frame in my hands, “and told me to call him if it happens again.”
I didn’t know if that really was Bobby’s signature. Grandma told lots of stories and I didn’t pay attention to all of them. But, I remember that she didn’t think it was strange to have called a Kennedy and told them what to do, and I’m pretty sure she was lucid enough throughout the time I knew her to know that would seem unusual to most people, including me or Ed.
We cleaned up broken photo frames and talked for a while, then I told her I was going to visit Granny and would return by 2pm. She smiled and hugged me and told me again that I was a good boy, saying that I was always visiting my Grandma and Granny.
I said goodbye a fee times, then walked out the carport, past my motorcycle, and turned right. A few minutes later, I was at Granny’s.
I knocked on the carport door as I opened it, and called out softly, in case she was sleeping, “Granny? It’s me…”
“In here,” she called from her living room. Her house looked almost identical to Grandma Foster’s, but Granny kept it clean and tidy, though it reeked of cigarette smoke. I took a deep breath of fresh air and entered.
Granny was smoking in her reclining chair, next to her bookshelf. She held the latest Reader’s Digest novel in her small hands, having to rest it on her thin legs because books were becoming too heavy for her. Beside her chair was an lamp-table with a glass of Scotch and an ashtray and a box of Kleenex tissues. Her throat and lower face were crisscrossed with faded ink lines that marked where the radiation machine would rest and try to kill her cancer faster than it killed her. She smiled broadly, and I cringed slightly because she had lost so much weight that the lines on her face sagged and didn’t follow the corners of her mouth upwards as she smiled.
“Well, this is a plesant surprise,” she said, smiling even bigger.
“Hey Granny,” I said as I bent down to hug her. “I was at Grandma Foster’s and wanted to see you.” Her smile grew so big that even the lines moved up and made a smiley grid pattern.
She looked worse every time I saw her, and the consistent grid lines made her already small face seem like sand sinking away in hourglass.
She reached up with the hand not holding her cigarette, but she couldn’t lift it high enough, so I shot down on a knee and swooped under her hand so that it rested on my shoulder. She leaned forward into my arms, and I hugged her and kissed her cheek, and asked how her day had been.
She exhausted from effort, and fell back into her recliner and began coughing. A minute later, she pulled a Kleenex from her sleeve and dabbled spittle and blood from her lips, threw away the dirty tissue, and reloaded her sleeve from the box beside her ashtray. She lit another cigarette, and looked out the living room window at her empty driveway.
“Where’s your car?” she asked.
“I walked here from Grandma Foster’s,” I replied, truthfully. Fortunately, and airplane took off from the airport and passed overhead, and we both stopped speaking because of the roar of jet engines. As we waited, I heard the kitchen cabinets rattling, and saw the ice cubes in Granny’s Scotch vibrate and settle into a new configuration, and hoped Granny wouldn’t ask more about the car. A few months ago, soon after I was emancipated, she had bought it for me.
“You need wheels,” she had told me, mater-of-factly. “I’ll give $2,000 towards whatever you find that will take you to and from school and work.” A few friends helped me find a used sports car for exactly $2,000. I was so excited that I didn’t think to offer them less, and I soon owned a Pontiac Fierro, a tiny two seat red sports car known for being unsafe in accidents. I wrecked it two weeks later.
I was fine. The car was undriveable. The hood had crumbled and crushed the radiator, and the engine had leaked out all of the oil leaked because of either a blown head gasket or broken piston. My friends were keeping it at their apartment, and I had planned to try repairing it after wrestling season.
One of my friends lent me a motorcycle. I liked it so much that I paid him my last $270 for it. He accepted, even though it was worth more. Ironically, I quit work to focus on wrestling and didn’t need to drive to and from school. I felt ashamed that Granny had helped me and I ruined the car, and had been practically lying to her since. The only redeeming thing I felt was having been an effective truth-bender for years, because of my family.
But I felt horrible for bending the truth ti Granny. To make the situation more embarrassing, I wrecked the car because I driving while I tried to forward Van Halen’s 1984 cassette tape to my favorite song , “Panama.” She had given me that tape a couple of Christmas’s before, saying she disapproved of the song titles, especially “Hot for Teacher,” but that I was a fine young man, and knew right from wrong. And when she bought the car, she simply said that I needed wheels.
At the time, she had just retired from almost 30 years of working at CoPolymer, but knew she wouldn’t live long enough to use her retirement money, she said, so she treating herself to the best life ever, which included helping me get wheels.
She had given me a blank check, and I bought the Fiero with the help of friends from Scotlandville. Two weeks later, I was accelerating onto the interstate mindlessly, because I was focused on finding and listening to Panama for my first time in my new sports car. I had taken my eyes off the road and eased my seat back and looked at the new cassette player butttons to find the “fast forward” button. My mouth moved to the lyrics that I heard in my head. I may have even been rockin’ my head to the beat, and I can still hear David Lee Roth’s famous voice followed by Van Halen’s chorus:
…I reach down between my legs n’ ease the seat back
She’s runnin’, I’m flyin’
Right behind in the rearview mirror now
Got the fearin’, power steerin’
Pistons poppin’, ain’t no stoppin’ now
Coincidentally or ironically, had crashed into the truck in front of me, not by reaching between my legs to ease the seat back, but by fast forwarding Granny’s cassette tape to that song, and for many reasons I had refrained from telling her.
I hadn’t told any of my family. Wrestling season had already began, and they were used to not seeing me for four months at a time, so no one asked. And Granny was used to me walking between her house and Grandma’s.
The airplane finished passing over Granny’s house, and she forgot about the care and asked how I did at the wrestling tournament; she didn’t read the newspaper. I told her, and held up my hand to show that Hillary Clinton had broken my finger.
“Again?” she said, laughing, and she began coughing again.
I waited until she had reloaded her Kleenex to say, “Not bad this time. Doc buddy-taped it.”
“Let me see,” she said, peering down her nose and through her glasses as she held my hand and rotated it so that she could see.
“Shit!” she said sharply, as she smiled so broadly that the lines on her throat and face were pulled up to her cheeks. “And it’s next to that scar your dad gave you.”
He hadn’t given me the scar. I cut myself with a machete near his farm after helping him trim trees and cut marijuana plants when I was ten years old. Granny had said that I was a kid then, so it was not my fault, it was my dad’s. I didn’t argue with Granny, even now. She was usually right about most things.
“What did Mr. Samuels and Dr. Zuckerman have to say about your finger?”
I told her I hadn’t seen them yet, but that we had a magic club meeting next week and they’d be there.
Mr. Samuels had carpooled with Granny for years when Wendy and I were kids, even when we overlapped as kids – Wendy was pregnant at 16. He had been an engineer at CoPolymer before he retired many years ago, and in his retirement he was president of local Ring #178 of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.
He encouraged me to come to monthly Ring meetings even before I could the I.B.M. would let me join. Their minimum age was 14, but because of Mr. Samuels I had been going to meetings since I was 11, just after I cut my finger with a machete. He even suggested ways to use the scar as patter, making it a story – not a lie – that made magic make sense, and he taught me how to use sleight-of-hand to change the color of a small pocket knife that I would later say had cut my finger and been stained blood red; I always changed to back to blue, though.
Mr. Samuels and Granny had taken turns carpooling to CoPolymer with a few other people during the 1970’s oil shortage. Mr. Samuels also used to pick me up for magic meetings, like he had picked Granny up for work, and Wendy for swim practice. I’d crawl in his car, and almost every time he’d say, “I remember that Joyce was firey! She had a sailor’s mouth.” He’d laugh, and remind me that professional magicians don’t curse, and then he’d tell me more about Joyce from 20 years before.
“When she drove, if someone cut her off she’d put her cigarette in her mouth and shove her hand out the window and show them her middle finger and curse loudly enough for everyone to her. We’d ask if she was speaking Canadian, and she’d smile and tell us to go to hell.”
She hadn’t changed much. I learned a lot of useful curse words when she drove me to the emergency room after Hillary broke my finger the first time.
Granny had always respected rules. Instead of fighting them, she said, learn them, and use them wisely. Knowledge was power, and not following road rules made you either foolish or an asshole, she said. I didn’t want to be either.
She began working as a minimum wage secretary at CoPolymer in the early 1960’s, and saved her money and learned the rules of United States retirement accounts, and taught herself about compounding interest and investments, just like the Billionaire Warren Buffet advised, and she bought a home and moved out of Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob’s as soon as she saved enough for a down payment. And now she owned it, and was dying. She said that was either a coincidence or irony.
She never remarried. Before she retired, she was happy with her cigarettes and booze and books and visits from me. After retiring, she added road trips to things that she enjoyed. She and a few girlfriends would take trips all over Louisiana and Florida, chain smoking and laughing the entire time, and even driving across Texas and into Mexico at a time when that could have terrified a team of Team of Tateamsters.
When I had asked her why she didn’t take me in when Wendy would not, she would get sad and tell me that she had become and alcoholic and was unable to care for me. But, She would die without regrets, like Uncle Bob, so she traveled.
That day, we chatted about Uncle Bob for a few moments, and she quoted his archetypal phrase: “You can’t take it with you!” She laughed and reminded me how when he was dying he asked us to tow a U-Haul behind his hearse and tell neighbors that he was trying to take his things with him. I hadn’t done it – Wendy said it was too tacky – and I smiled as I lied to Granny that not renting a U-Haul for Uncle Bob was my only regret. We both laughed at that, and Granny coughed for a while, but said it was worth it.
I realized that I had lost track of time, and I asked Granny what time it was. She looked at her tiny gold watch, the one engraved from CoPolymer, and told me it was almost 2:20.
Shit! I thought. I was about to tell her that I needed to leave, but another airplane took off. The cabinets rattled and her ice cubes shifted again. This time, she picked up the glass and tried to take a sip, but her eyes clenched shut and her face squenched up so tightly that the lines on her face overlapped. The radiation treatments made alcohol burn her throat unbearably, and the chemotherapy made her stomach vomit almost all liquids. Instead of leaving, I asked why she kept trying to drink.
“Old habits are hard to break, especially bad ones.”
She looked up at me and her smile faded. She gestured at her liquor bottles in the cabinet beside her bookshelf and told me, matter-of-factly, that she kept booze in her home because if the only reason you don’t drink is because it’s not there then you’re still an alcoholic. To be free, she said, you had to not feel the temptation. And if you felt the temptation… good! It’s telling you that you’re not free; at that moment, you had a choice.
She said she was always tempted, but the radiation and chemotherapy hadn’t allowed her to drink booze no matter how hard she tried or how much she watered it down. She couldn’t drink, but she wanted to break the habit. She wanted to be free before she died. So she kept her liquor cabinet full and sipped her Scotch painfully. Even a bad choice was a choice, and that was a form of freedom.
I thought about freedom as I looked at her bottles of Scotch and Canadian rye whiskey. Granny and Wendy were Canadian; Granny left her abusive husband when Wendy was five years old, but she was unemployed and uneducated and and she moved to Baton Rouge to live her sister and brother in law, my Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob. They had all been drinking friends back in Toronto, and casually admitted to not having been sober an entire day since the 1940’s. They’d say it as if it were a statement of pride. Auntie Lo couldn’t have children, and they had dedicated themselves to living the best life they could, as they defined it.
Uncle Bob had died of cancer last summer. I stayed with him for three months because they couldn’t afford in-home care, and Auntie Lo was too drunk by this time of day to care for him. Granny had bought me the car after that, and possibly because of that, and had been sober since then because of her radiation and chemotherapy.
But even drunk Granny’s mind was sharp, and I always remembered her sipping her way through a book and bottle of Scotch until she stumbled into her bedroom. After I heard her snoring, I’d read pages from the Encyclopedia Britanica on her bookshelf and a few other reference books I had used over the years.
One of Granny’s bedrooms held her Reader’s Digest books and my childhood collection of Hardy Boys mysteries, Encyclopedia Brown books, and, my favorites, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. I would reread those, and ponder choices the adults in my life kept making.
Because the Baton Rouge public library was far away, I used Granny’s encyclopedia set for school reports, and read it when Wendy left me there over weekends. Before she began drinking after lunch, Granny would show me new things. She enjoyed mythology, showed me about Jason and the Argonauts, the first super heroes from Greek myths, and told me that I was like that Jason. I was brave and handsome and ready for adventures. I read everything I could about that Jason and the other Greek heroes, and chose the argonauts for school projects, when given a choice.
I stared at Granny’s booze and books and began to realize I’d miss her when I left for the 82nd in a few months.
Granny followed my gaze and asked what was wrong. I said nothing, that I was running late for getting back to Grandma Fosters. Another airplane passed, and when the cabinets stopped rattling I hugged Granny and began to leave. She insisted on getting up and watching me walk down the street like she always had, so I helped her up and to the living room door. I walked past the Stately Oak tree in her front yard and onto the empty driveway, and turned left towards Grandma’s and waved goodbye.
Granny waved back with a cigarette between her fingers, and I waited for her to finish coughing before I began walking towards Grandma’s. At the stop sign, I turned and looked back, and Granny waved again. I waved back, already missing Granny and still feeling ashamed about hiding my car from her.
I walked back to my motorcycle and thought about Granny. She had changed after retiring. The lines on her face were obvious, but for those who knew her she seemed the happiest she had ever been, even with the radiation and chemo and ticking clock. That was saying a lot because Granny always seemed happy; or, at least she never complained about her situation. But, she’d never shy away from quick flashes of anger when someone did something foolish. That’s when she’d ‘speak Canadian at them.’
I arrived at Grandma Foster and apologized for being late, and told her I should leave. She hugged me and told me again what a good boy I was, and thanked me for helping her clean her house. I told her I’d see her before I left for the army, and I rode my motorcycle slowly down the street and stopped at the stop sign so I could wave back to her.
I don’t remember why, but I didn’t feel like getting on the interstate, so I turned the opposite direction. Intentionally, that time.
I may have wanted to drive slowly, on back roads, and think about Encyclopedia Brown and Choose Your Own Adventures and the lines on Granny’s face or my dad’s rants. Or, I was looking for something. All I recall for sure is that I slowly drove a few miles down winding roads, away from the airport and subdivisions, and towards flat farm land with only a few homes. I didn’t recall having driven there before.
I approached a yellow traffic light, and as I slowed down I felt that I recognized the intersection. I stopped and looked at the convenience store across from the light, and knew that I had seen the big Stately Oak tree behind it. I felt confused.
Most Stately Oaks look similar. They have long, crooked branches that rise and fall to the ground, and grey Spanish moss hangs on each branch like an old man’s beard. But, I knew one this tree, probably because of its lone location across from a convenience store. I had sat in one of its long branches, but I didn’t remember how or when. I saw a nook that I knew had held me and swayed gently when the wind blew.
I sat through two cycles of the traffic light turning red and green – before automatic sensing, lights cycled at regular intervals – but I couldn’t remember how I knew that tree. I drove through the intersection, and continued more slowly. A half mile or so later, I recognized a house and began to feel memories resurfacing but still out of reach.
I pulled into the driveway and parked behind a car in the carport. I turned off the bike and pulled off my helmet and stared into the carport. Something was missing. I didn’t hear crickets. Before I could think about that, the door opened and a woman stood in the doorway with her hands to her mouth and her eyes wide open in surprise.
“Jason? Is that really you, Shugah?”
Without thinking, I whispered, “Maw Maw?” Memories flooded my mind all at once, like how muddy water from the Mississippi River tumbles through a break in the levee, so full force that it’s hard to process or stop. At least a dozen events with similar smells and sounds and images flooded my mind.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, and pulled down her hands. She still wore bright red lipstick, and her hair was still stacked higher than seemed physically possible. Though it was grey now, I knew when I got close I’d still smell the industrial strength hairspray that Maw Maw had used liberally. I got off my bike, and she rushed towards me with her arms open, and I was right about the hairspray.
She gave me a wet kiss on the cheek, and I smiled and wiped off the lipstick I knew would be there. I followed her inside, and wondered where the cricket cage was. She told me that she and Ed, my Paw Paw, Ed White, was gone. I would have to process that later.
She said she didn’t have any cookies ready, but could bake some real quick. I said no, thank you, that I was wrestling in the junior olympics that summer and needed to keep my weight down. That was true, but I think the only reason I said no was that I was still swallowing the flood of memories and forgot that I was hungry.
The kitchen smelled like hairspray and Paw Paw’s cigarettes, and as I listened to Maw Maw talk about how much she missed me, I imagined that I smelled chocolate chip cookies.
I looked around the kitchen at furniture I remembered, and out the back window towards the tall metal gate and barn, and the small pond I knew was between them. One of my first memories is from there, and the kitchen. It’s one of the first times I met my dad, and he bought me a super hero.
Paw Paw was cutting branches with a chainsaw and throwing them on a bonfire by the pond, and I was climbing the gate. I had been trying to climb it for a while. It was too tall, but I kept trying. It was my Mount Everest. Keith was nearby, pouring diesel on fire ant hills, and probably, or supposedly, watching me. I don’t remember which. The gate fell, and suddenly my memories became crystal clear.
“Ed! Ed!” I heard. “Get over here! It’s Jason! Hurry!” I felt myself swooped up in the air, and the big man carrying me as he ran to Paw Paw’s truck outside the gate. I opened my eyes, and through a waterfall of blood I saw Paw Paw jumping over a burning fire ant hill.
“You drive – I got him,” Keith yelled as he cradled me in one arm and opened the truck with his other. I felt my body shutter as the big man shook his body and slammed Paw Paw’s old rusty truck door with a loud clang!
Paw Paw jumped into the driver’s seat and slammed his door and started the old motor. We spun around so fast that the big man almost let me fall, and Paw Paw raced up his dirt road and turned onto the highway.
At the traffic light, he honked his horn and stuck half of his small body out of his window and waived the white handkerchief he always carried to blow his nose, and shouted in his thick southern Louisiana accent, “Get out da way! Get out da way!” He pulled his body back in and kept honking the horn as he sped through the red light.
I saw blood all over Paw Paw’s seat and floorboard, and the next thing I remember I was waking up in Our Lady of the Lake Hospital with Paw Paw and Maw Maw at my bedside.
I was disappointed that there wasn’t really a lake at the hospital – I wanted to go fishing – but lots of ladies came in and out of my room to check on me so I had lots of things to distract me. Paw Paw stayed most of the time, saying he wouldn’t leave his Lil’ Buddy. When he wasn’t there I was still happy, because I could play in the common room with more toys than I had ever seen, and other kids to play with. It even had a color television, and I watched color cartoons for the first time. I was glued to that big box, especially when Popeye the Sailor came on, because he reminded me of Paw Paw; they both smoked and mumbled, and Popeye looked after Sweet Pea, Olive Oil’s baby, and fought the big bully Bluto. I was enthralled. I even forgot about the possibility of fishing in the alleged lake.
I knew the difference between cartoons and real life, but I didn’t know the difference between television shows and commercials, and I watched all commercials with zeal. One stood out: a cheerful mom gave a group of happy kids a Stretch Armstrong action figure, and I leaned forward and watched them become happier as they pulled his arms and made him fight the bad stretching guy. They laughed and held Stretch Armstrong by their chest, and pulled both of his strong arms with their stronger arms. He always recovered, and they could repeat that all day, apparently growing happier each time.
I had to have one.
I was released with 26 stitches and a big, beautiful white bandage wrapped around my handsome head – at least that’s what Maw Maw told me it was – and I told anyone who would listen that I wanted a Stretch Armstrong. A few weeks later, my dad showed up with a box that looked like the answer to my dreams.
But Maw Maw wouldn’t let him through the kitchen door. She called for Paw Paw, and he came in from the living room and asked my dad to leave. But my dad saw me and held up the box and said he got me what he thought I wanted. I smiled and rushed towards him. He began to step inside, but Paw Paw stood between us. He was tiny compared to my dad, like Popeye to Bluto, but he didn’t budge. My dad said something loudly and pushed him aside, but Paw Paw stepped back between us and asked him to leave again. His voice never changed tone.
Linda and Craig, Paw Paw’s daughter and son-in-law, came into the Kitchen from their bedroom and stood beside Maw Maw. My dad shoved Paw Paw again and grabbed me, and then Craig stepped forward and grabbed my dad as Maw Maw and Linda grabbed me. I didn’t see what Paw Paw did, but suddenly everyone was shouting and pulling me as if I were an action figure.
Someone’s fingernail dug into my arm, and I screamed and Linda and Craig’s baby started crying and everyone calmed down. Linda went to get her baby, and Craig and Paw Paw stood between my dad and me. Maw Maw grabbed a box of Band Aides, and began baking chocolate chip cookies.
Paw Paw said that my dad could see me in the carport, then had to leave. We went outside, and soon Maw Maw brought a band-aide for the cut on my arm and a cookie.
My dad sat on a bench by the cricket cage with me on his lap. We inspected my band-aid, and he told me how brave and strong I was, and that he loved me. I said I loved him, too, and asked what was in the box.
He showed me a box with the big black monster that Stretch Armstrong fought. I told him that wasn’t the right one, but he took it out of the box and showed me how to stretch it, and I was happy. I kept trying to pull it – the kids on television must have been stronger – and my dad kept talking, but I don’t remember what he said after I started pretending that I was Stretch and was fighting the monster.
Maw Maw came out with more cookies, and told my dad he could take one to go. After he left, I stretched the Black Stretch Armstrong and ate cookies.
I can’t remember how many I ate, but if I know me, it was too many. I still love chocolate chip cookies, and still eat too many. Granny was right: bad habits are hard to break.
Maw Maw looked outside to see what I was looking at, and I told her my mind was flooding with memories.
She said she wanted to show me something, so I followed her into the hallway, past my old bedroom. We stopped just before Linda’s room – I was shocked by how much I recalled about a family I hadn’t seen in ten years – and Maw Maw started pointing to the picture frames on the wall.
One framed photo was of me and Paw Paw napping on the couch when I was 4 or 5 years old, and the rest were newspaper clippings of me since then. She even had the Baton Rouge Wrestling championships from a month before. Some of the clippings were not of me, but of my cousin, Jason Partin. Apparently, he was good at football. I stared, unsure what was happening in my head, but somehow happy it was.
Maw Maw talked and pointed at clippings as if she had been there. She had put the article from a year ago about me performing magic for kids at Our Lady of the Lake in a big frame; my photo took up most of the space, and you could even see my magic rabbit and hat necklace that Granny had made for me. I was spinning a wand and doing something with coins. She said that she thought I had grown into a handsome young man, and she was proud of me for making those kids smile.
She walked me back through ten years of memories that I had almost forgotten. There was a gap in the mid 1980’s from when I was in Arkansas with my dad, but she even had the news clipping from when I was on television in 1981, just after Big Daddy had been on television a bunch for going to prison.
Not even Granny remembered that time from the 2nd grade. I did, because I thought it was a big deal to be on television, just like Big Daddy was a lot during that time, and I didn’t know the difference between a local news station and national networks, just like when I was younger I didn’t know the difference between reality and movies or television commercials.
She stopped talking and looked sad, and walked to a bookshelf and pulled out a photo album that contained paperwork, and showed me court reports from the 1970’s and 80’s. She said they tried to adopt me, and when they failed and tried to keep seeing me Wendy told them they couldn’t.
I was shocked, again. Wendy had told me that the Whites didn’t want to see me again, and kept telling me to stop saying “Paw Paw” and to call him Mr. White. I had forgotten about that; it had been 10 years, which is a lifetime for a 17 year old. I was confused by the headache I felt forming, and I said I had to go.
Seeing Maw Maw and smelling her hairspray in the kitchen ripped apart those dendrites and freed neurons, and I was stugling to process Mr. Whitr abandoning me, dying, and resurecting as Paw Paw again. It was more than I could handle that day.
I rode off on my motorcycle, stopping at the traffic light by the convenience store and Stately Oak tree, and somehow found my way back to the airport and then the state capital building. I parked in alley behind the wrestling gym, mopped the mat, and worked out for at least two hours before mopping the mat again and washing myself in the bathroom.
I twisted my neck and body to look at the ringworm that I had felt was still there, and parted my hair to see the full length of my scar. My head began to hurt again, and I refocused on the ringworm. It had grown larger in diameter and darker red in color, but not as badly as it would have if I hadn’t applied fungicide that morning. I put on more, winced at the smell, and put on my last clean shirt.
I went back onto the mat, laid down and rested my head on the throw dummy, and stared at the asbestos until I fell asleep. I don’t remember if I dreamed that night, and I still didn’t know if the dummy did, but I recall that as I drifted off to sleep, I wondered: if a dummy dreamed, did it dream of wrestling, too?