Like a heartbeat, drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost
And what you had
And what you lost
Fleetwood Mac, “Dreams”
She stirred the eggs a cast iron skillet slowly, being careful not splash the thin layer of hot olive oil. She was standing on a small four legged stool to reach the stove, and knew where to find a fire extinguisher. I was standing behind her, just in case. It was a cool autumn day, and we were making our own breakfast burritos and happy to be by the warm burner, cooking eggs together.
I lied to you – the reader – earlier, and I’m sorry. I had decided at the last minute to leave most of the clothes in my backpack and take Auntie Lo’s cast iron skillet on the airplane home. It’s older than even Wendy was, perfectly seasoned from years of slow cooking, like Auntie Lo was, and it had been a source of many memorable moments in my life. But, when telling a story, I skipped over some parts, either because the story would be too long, or because the timing wasn’t right.
Later that evening, on the balcony, Cristi asked what had happened, and I briefly told her about the kitchen fire.
Wendy and I had to leave her small apartment by the Chinese restaurant on Florida Bulevard, the one the trial judge had generously called a fine home, because she accidentally set fire to the kitchen by spilling cooking oil from her cast iron skillet onto the gas burner and sending up a wall of flame up. She didn’t have a fire extinguisher, but she fanned the flames with her dishtowel, flinging faming oil onto the stained wallpaper that was flaking and highly combustable, especially with the oil stains. Thankfully, she knew enough to never through water on an oil fire.
We fled outside and waited with our neighbors until we heard sirens, and then we waited with even more people watching to see what had happened. She had cried and called herself stupid while the firefighters put out the fire, and the apartment manager asked us to leave while they repaired the kitchen and she lost her security deposit and didn’t have enough savings to get another apartment. We stayed with Debbie and her family at first, but the crowded rooms and shrieking and thick clouds of cigarette smoke drove Wendy to ask for help from Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob, and we stayed with them for a while.
We were there for Christmas, and I heard PawPaw’s old truck pull up and the creaky door slam, and I rushed to the carport door. I hadn’t seen PawPaw in forever! I flung open the door. And he had brought gifts! He stooped down and hugged me and called me his Lil’ Buddy and said he brought me something.
He had taken the time to buy a cheap camera and photograph the big old stately oak tree I love, have it developed and then enlarged, and put in an 8X10 frame for me. And a pogo stick! Unfortunately, Auntie Lo had asked him to leave after he demonstrated the pogo stick indoors and scuffed her nice freshly polished hardwood floor. She abomished him for almost knocking over her tree, jumping around like a wild man. He didn’t seem phased, and he and Wendy talked briefly and she let us have a few minutes to say goodbye in the carport. He looked different than I had ever seen him, and I’ll never forget the sad look in his eye when he knelt down and said,
“Hey d’er, Lil’ Buddy! I’ll never forget d’at funny joke y’ told me. Remember? You was funny!”
I didn’t remember.
“I reached for my belt and you told me, ‘PawPaw, belts are for holdin’ up your pants, not for hittin’ y’er Lil’ Buddy! Hahaha! I laughed and laughed! Hahaha! Remember now?”
His face lit up like the PawPaw I knew and loved, and I began to remember, and I laughed with him. Just two ol’ Buddies, laughing at Christmas time. He looked at me hopefully, and I thought I saw a tear forming in the corner of his good eye he was so happy.
“Belts are f’r holdin’ up your pants,” he repeated, “not fr hittin’ y’er Lil’ Buddy!” He laughed and laughed and cried tears of Joy, and I joined in and we laughed together until Auntie Lo came to the carport door and told him it was time to go. He wiped his eye and hugged me and turned his back and walked to his the old rusty truck, and crawled up into it and gently closed the door and carefully backed out and pulled away, and I haven’t seen him since. I remember that it snowed soon after, an extreme rarity that far south, and the internet says that January 1978 is on record as the most consecutive snowfall in Baton Rouge’s history, and I remember building snowmen with Uncle Bob and wondering why PawPaw hadn’t taken me sledding on the hill by the Old State Capital that year, because he had always said it would be even better with snow. But, perhaps the worse part at the time, in my mind and with my limited knowledge of the future at that time, was that Auntie Lo threw away my pogo stick that afternoon after I knocked over the Christmas tree.
We left Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob’s soon after. Life seemed chaotic there, too, at least by 2 or 3 pm every day. Auntie Lo would become drunk and fume about the stray animals Wendy kept rescuing and bringing home, and would calmly call pet control to pick up stray dogs or, when drunk, angrily run around gathering a litter of kittens from the momma cat Wendy had found and placing them into a cardboard kittens and drive them away and return without the kittens but with a new bottle of Scotch from a nearby liquor store.
Auntie Lo got drunk one night and stayed up late and fought with Wendy when she came home stoned. I woke up hearing Auntie Lo screaming that Wendy kept leaving me to visit her boyfriend, Brian, and I heard the unmistakable sound of a face slap and peered from my bedroom and saw Wendy try to fight back but be overwhelmed by the large and lumbering Auntie Lo, and I saw Wendy’s relatively tiny body sent flying backward against the refrigerator. She recovered and screeched and hurled herself forward and landed a lucky slap across Auntie Lo’s face, and Auntie Lo burst into tears and shouted in her slurred voice for us to leave, that I was just like the stray animals Wendy brought home but didn’t take care of, just like Joyce had left Wendy for them, and she wanted both of us gone. Wendy ran to my room, sobbing, and hastily packed my backpack and we left and stayed with Brian the one armed drug dealer for a few weeks, which I felt was better than being carried away in a box.
He had lost his arm in a motorcycle accident and spent his days high, cheerfully trying to modify his motorcycle to be ridden with one hand. He could roll a joint with one hand and roll a quarter across the fingers of his remaining hand, and said that with the same patience he’d eventually modify the connections on his motorcycle and learn how to ride again. He was always nice to us and always said my name right, but he didn’t have space for us in his tiny trailer, especially because it was constantly full of people who looked like Bob Ross and smelled like Debbie’s little bag of weed and who didn’t have children or jobs yet. Wendy would joke with them that she was taking care of her little brother, and everyone seemed to enjoy playing with me and teaching me things, like how to roll the seeds from a bag of Bryan’s shitty weed and still make a fine joint on the underside of a Frisbee.
Wendy saved her money from delivering phone books for PawPaw, and she may have found some help from somewhere, and she put a a security deposit on a small, old rental house in Baker, not to far from her new job as a receptionist at Exxon Plastics along Chemical Alley, and we moved in to a house a bit smaller than Granny’s and not too far away.
She told me she got the job because her last name was Partin, and that’s likely true; after the newly built interstate system went from New Orleans through Baton Rouge and into America, Big Daddy had led the economic development of chemical alley throughout the 50’s and 60’s, and by the late 70’s many senior managers felt indebted to Ed Partin.
My dad had bought 10 acres of land in the remote mountains of Arkansas and was growing marijuana there and bringing it back to Baton Rouge to dry in a house he or Big Daddy owned or rented; I don’t recall which, but it was across from Belaire High School, a former neighborhood not unlike the area around Glen Oaks High. Every few months, he’d pick me up from wherever Wendy was staying and we’d go on adventures together. In the summer of 1977, he pulled into Wendy’s Baker driveway in his big, new Ford F150 truck and opened the passenger door and Anne hopped out and ran up to me and jumped on my shoulders and licked my face.
Anne was an Irish Setter that my dad had bought as a puppy and trained to retrieve ducks from deep within the swamp when we went hunting, and she was the love of my life. I laughed as she licked my face and wrestled with her for a few minutes until my dad said we had to go, and he told Wendy to look after Anne for him and that we’d be back in a week. I tossed my weekend backpack onto the seat and crawled up and in, kicking empty beer cans out of the way so I could step into the floorboard and heft myself onto the bucket seat. I was anxious to show him my new pocketknife, the Old Henry PawPaw had given me and taught how to use after I killed Stretch Armstrong with a screwdriver. I would leave his oak tree photo with Wendy, but I always carries the Old Henry.
“Hey Justin, I mean Jason, I’m happy to see you, son,” my dad said softly for him, but still loud and deep and booming. I told him I was happy to see him, too, and he rubbed my head and grabbed it and rotated it towards the open door.
“I can’t even see that scar any more,” he said. It was still there, but Wendy had let my hair grow so long it was hidden. My hair wasn’t nearly as long as my dad’s, and it was auburn, not black, but he rarely commented on that. He was only fascinated by the scar; most people were, it had been huge and formed a giant, backwards C shape across the back of my head where the flap had lifted and been resewn back on with 82 stitches, and where PawPaw said they had put the second brain that made me so smart. My dad held my head and rotated it back and forth and pushed it down and parted my hair and said it was still there, but didn’t say anything about my second brain or ask about school; I was doing well, and PawPaw had said that was because I was smart and had more brains than most adults.
“How’re your teeth?” my dad boomed. I couldn’t answer, because he had opened my mouth by putting his left hand in my forehead and his right on my chin, and had tilted my head up and was peering down into my mouth like a circus lion tamer showing the crowd he wasn’t afraid of being bitten. He looked this way and that, and rotated my head to get better light inside my mouth, and said, “Good. No cavities.”
Satisfied with his inspection, he released his hold and reached across me and pulled the door shut and cranked the ignition and lowered the steering wheel gear shift into drive and peeled out of the driveway and onto the blacktop, kicking up gravel that bounced along the road behind us. As we passed the oak tree and store, he told me to not use toothpaste, because toothpaste companies made money by convincing people it mattered, and that all toothpaste did was make your breath smell good.
I listened but didn’t argue. Wendy said the opposite, and I had learned to never mention one of their opinions to the other, and to do whatever MawMaw and PawPaw did. He kept talking about other things companies and governments do, and how he liked Carter because he was doing the right thing and had gotten rid the draft (he hadn’t, that was the guy before him whose name I can never recall) and that all the Teamsters hated him because gas prices had gotten so high and that the war mongering assholes were probably plotting to invade Saudi Arabia and take their oil; and soon we were flying over Baton Rouge along the raised I-10 highway and the wind noise was so loud I couldn’t understand everything he said.
He steered his big new Ford with his knees and rolled a joint with both hands, licked it, sealed it, lit it, and cracked his window and took a few tentative hits. He exhaled most of the second hand smoke outside, then took a deep hit and held it for a minute before exhaling and sat back, relaxed.
He always stopped talking about companies and governments after a few hits, and I had learned to be patient before saying much. I sat happily, sniffing the smell of smoke in the air and trying to roll a quarter across my knuckles.
He saw me playing and smiled broadly and patted my leg enthusiastically and exhaled and said, “Guess where we’re going, son.” I had no idea, but always had a good time and got excited whenever he did. He had taken me hunting and fishing and gardening in his secret garden hidden deep in the swamp on a relatively dry hill with fewer alligators than under the culverts we waded through, and we had carried our guns through the culverts and held them above our heads in deeper water and kept quiet so the alligators wouldn’t hear us and had a grand time, just like soldiers or wild west heroes in movies, except as dad and son. I was either imaging those adventures or high, and I forgot about showing my knife, but with childlike excitement asked him to tell me where we were going today.
He took another hit and somehow spoke without exhaling, like Debbie could do, and he beamed in a slightly strained voice, “To see Stevie Nicks!” He exhaled smoke and coughed just a bit and laughed and beamed, “She’s fine!” He pointed to the floorboard and told me to pick up an eight-track cassette, and he put it in the new truck’s player and showed me how to push the play button; it was hard, and I had to use both hands, and he laughed and said I should try to get stronger, and I said I would. I had never told him what happened to Stretch, and he never asked, but I remembered how he told me I’d become as big and strong as him and Big Daddy and I was sure I’d find some way. Until then, I had my knife and PawPaw.
Suddenly, the speakers started playing Stevie Nicks and her band, Fleetwood Mac, and their Rumors album. It was a phenomenon, selling 10 Million albums in the first few months after its release in February of 1977. The first song, Second Hand News, opens with a brief guitar strumming that sounded a lot like I heard my dad and his friends play. It’s good, and even then I started wiggling in my seat to the rhythm, possibly influenced by my dad tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and bobbing his head back and forth, his joint dangling from his lips. We jammed together, flying along Interstate 10, high above downtown Baton Rouge.
He took the joint from his lips and reached across me and pointed through my window, towards downtown, and said, “There! that’s where they’ll be performing!” He was pointing at the Old State Capital overlooking the Mississippi River on top of the only hill in Baton Rouge, other than the Indian mounds sprinkled around the LSU campus, the hill PawPaw took me sledding down on an opened cardboard box with all the other father and sons. It was only about 20 feet high and gently sloped, just enough to keep it dry during a hurricane flood and more like a ramp leading up to the castle-themed capital building, but it was the biggest mountain I had ever seen, and PawPaw said it was the biggest in Louisiana.
I asked if we’d go sledding on Mount Capital, and my dad’s voice raised and he looked stern and said, “No, son. Look. Look where I’m pointing.” He clasped my head from the top with his massive hand, spreading his fingers across my entire scalp like a basketball player holding a ball glued to his palm and upside down, like I’d soon see the Harlem Globtrotters do at the Baton Rouge Centeoplex when Wendy would take me there later that summer, and that’s when I first it. The newly built Centroplex, a few blocks away from the Old State Capitol. It was huge. It wad built in 1976, over a year when I hadn’t been sledding, and to me it was as if a wizard had made a giant dome appear next to the castle on top of Mount Capital. It could seat 10,000 people, and Fleetwood Mac would be performing there on their Rumors tour, and my dad was taking me to see the magic building and meet Miss Nicks.
The next song came on, Dreams, and my dad cheered up again and flicked his spent roach out his window and cranked up the volume, and shouted over Dreams, “That’s Stevie! Man! She’s fine!” His countenance radiated admiration and his fingers tapped to the constant, simple drum line, and I heard Miss Nick’s voice. It’s spectacular. Her voice, the rhythm, and the lyrics all combine to form a perfect moment. Even today, Dreams is an internet video meme with people singling along, and, like Led Zepplin’s 1971 album, Led Zepplin IV, Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 Rumors album is still one of the world’s best selling albums. My dad and I flew across Baton Rouge singing along with Dreams of Miss Nicks.
We arrived at one of his houses. He had a couple, though they were really Big Daddy’s, and this one was in Belaire subdivision, directly across from Belaire High School, a deteriorating part of town that still had cheap three bedroom, two bath houses. Bigger houses in nicer neighborhoods with less disreputable schools than Belaire were more popular by then, and in 1977 my dad was there because Belaire had become a discrete and relatively inexpensive place with big enough houses and diminishing police presence, and he was using one of the rooms to dry his marijuana plants.
They hung upside down, ceiling to floor, wall to wall, and he kept the windows shut and the air conditioning running so neighbors wouldn’t smell their unmistakable dankness that permeated the house. I was fine with that; it was summer in Baton Rouge, hot and muggy and swarming with mosquitoes, and PawPaw didn’t have air conditioner, and the holes in the screens let im determined bugs, and it was a treat to visit my dad and play inside, nice and chill, without flies and listening to him and his friends play guitar and talk about things I didn’t understand but seemed like a lot of fun so I listened and enjoyed the chill air and dank smells with them.
When we arrived, I knew that Cousin Donald was home when we pulled up, because his van was in the carport. It had an elevator to lift his wheelchair, and all kinds of levers around the steering wheel so that he could drive using only his hands. I always enjoyed playing with all of the wires and levers in his van, and had even told Brian about the van so he could add levers and wires to his motorcycle, though I’d never learn if he did.
My dad and I walked through the carport door before noon and Donald was already drunk and had a can of beer tucked between his legs and was swerving through the living room in his wheelchair, laughing maniacally. I don’t know how tall he was, but he was thin and had bushy hair and looked a lot like Craig, but with Kieth’s blue eyes and a subtle smile I was just beginning to associate with anyone related to Big Daddy, other than my dad and me.
He had lost use of his legs in a drunk driving accident, before I knew him, but every time I saw him he told about it, as if he didn’t recognize me. He’d say me how scary it was to wake up in the hospital after a few days covered in bandages. He had never asked about my scar, but he’d get drunk and talk about how bad it was to be crippled, that he had a tube shoved up his dick-hole so he could pee, and would hold up the plastic bag of dark yellow urine dangling from his wheelchair and connected to a tube that disappeared into his pants and sometimes laugh and sometimes cry.
“Hey, Justin…” he mumbled before taking a sip from his beer. He had strapped a beer can holder to his wheelchair and set the can there to roll towards me. “Want a beer?” he joked, and tossed his head back and laughed at himself for at least a minute.
“Just kiddin’…” he sipped a beer and told me how he was doing. He was scared.
The past few times I had seen him, he also talked about how frightened he had been when Jimmy Hoffa blew up his house. He and Uncle Doug, his father, had almost died, he repeated. He said that often, though sometimes he said Marcello instead of Hoffa, and sometimes a name I couldn’t understand with his mumbly, slurred words.
No matter the cause of the explosions, police records show that Doug’s house blew up with Donald inside and it had burnt to the ground, and we know Donald was staying with my dad, so it’s likely that everyone in town was talking about it and offering their opinions on who did what and why, and I grew up hearing these names and actions as if this were typical of any family.
I slept on the living room sofa at my dad’s house because the third bedroom had a baby’s crib and a baby girl inside it about half of the time. Her legs were wrapped in casts after a surgery to correct intrinsic deformities. Doctors would break her legs and restet them slightly closer to straight, wait for them to heal and break them again. Her mother told me it was her third surgery that week, and that they were expensive, and that my dad was a good man for paying her medical bills. She said I must be proud of my dad, and I agreed and said he was the best dad ever!
The next morning we woke up and I helped pack dried weed that had been trimmed of leaves into little plastic baggies and roll them tightly while the mom cooked bacon and eggs and skillet fried potatoes for breakfast. We used a big, metal scale to weigh them. It wasn’t the type with two plates, like the one blind lady liberty of justice used, or the Libra scales that my dad said was my birth symbol, but it was mechanical and I had to learn to slide the weights back and forth and add a bit of weed to make 1/8 ounce bags, and then, like my dad showed me, toss in a little Lagniappe, a free extra bit to be generous and give people a gift, even if they didn’t realize it. My dad said it was the right thing to do. He was a generous young man.
By evening, Donald was too drunk to leave the house, and I don’t know where the lady and her baby had gone, but my dad was high and happy and said we were ready to go. We loaded into his Ford with a six pack of beer and flew back up I-10 to the new Centroplex.
“Stevie Nicks is fine!” my dad chimed as I put in the eight-track and pushed the button. He rolled and lit a joint and we jammed to Rumors and arrived and parked along the levee, between the Old State Capital and the unfathomly tall new one that stretched all the way to the clouds; at the time, Baton Rouge had the tallest state capital in America, a gift from Governor Long obtained with dubious funds, and the old, squat, castle-shaped capital building that Mark Twain had called an eyesore on the Mississippi that had become a popular cardboard sledding mountain. I would grow to know the spot well, and it’s still a popular place to park when visiting downtown and the now aging Centroplex. As long as the levee doesn’t break, it’ll probably always be a good place to park.
We sat in his truck with the levee behind us, across from the two state capitals, and listened to the rest of Rumors and he finished his six pack of beer and another joint, and slapped my thigh and reminded me that Stevie Nicks was fine and we left his truck and walked to the ticket counter. At first, they said I was too young and wouldn’t let me inside, but my dad bellowed and poked his finger at them and the acquiesced. My dad was always good at talking people into doing things they resisted at first, and had probably learned that from his dad. I watched my dad get what he wanted for both of us, and I hoped to be that big and brave one day.
The Centroplex was huge, bigger than anything I had ever seen. Not as tall as the new state capital, but cavernous. Walking inside was like stepping into another world. The sky was blacked out and replaced by a blinding array of ceiling lights, the mugginess of outside was replaced by cool and relatively dry air conditioning, and there were more hippies than I had ever seen in my life. Thousands of them. The air was thick with a familiar, dank smell, and my dad was as giddy as a little boy anxious to play with his new toy. I walked too slowly, so he put me on his shoulders and, suddenly, I was the biggest person in the room. I could see everyone as we walked to the beer stalls, and everyone could see me. I became famous, and people pointed and told my dad how cool it was that he took his son to see live music; there’s no mistaking that I’m dad’s son because we look exactly alike, especially with my hair grown long to hide my scar. He beamed, proud at the attention, and told everyone I was his son and introduced me to all kinds of interesting people and used my correct name most of the time. He bought a beer and pushed and shoved his way to almost against the stage, about 20 feet stage right of the center microphone, and he pointed and shouted over the din that that’s Stevie Nicks would sing for us. I was as stoked as a lucky kid waiting Christmas morning.
Almost two joints later, the lights went down and 10,000 people shouted joyfully and just as many joints fired up, and I looked down and saw my dad passing a small joint on a roach clip with some people he had met. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they’d point up at me and smile and give me a “thumbs up” and I’d smile and bravely let go of my dad’s head like letting go of an oak tree’s bark and give a thumbs up back at them and then regrasp his head to keep from falling off as he moved around and passed joints and drank beers.
Smoke rises, and I felt high and fine. The crowd pushed us closer to the stage, and the bright stage lights came on and Fleetwood Mac walked on stage and the crowd went wild. My dad let go of my legs and cupped his hands to shout, and I felt so good that I let go and balanced on his shoulders and tucked my heels into his armpits and cupped my hands and shouted for Miss Nicks, too. I was ready to have the time of my life.
But, Miss Nicks wasn’t there yet, and they opened with Second Hand News. A good song, but she isn’t the lead singer. They finished, and the crowd cheered and some people, like my dad, shouted for Stevie, and when she walked on stage I felt more than heard the energy from everyone around me, and I joined in with all my heart, and she walked past me and stood behind the microphone and my dad bounced up and down so hard I could feel his joy, and when she sang it was the most beautiful things I had ever heard. And, just like my dad had said she would do, she danced and twirled and changed dresses between songs, coming out in flowing gowns that fluttered like butterfly wings as she twirled and sang, from my perspective, just for me.
Three hours later, we stumbled outside and tried to find the truck. For some reason, it was hard to find by then. When we did, my dad fumbled with his keys and dropped them and cursed and steadied himself on the door’s mirror so he could reach down and pick them up. He managed to get them inside the keyhole and open the door and plop down on the seat. He kept telling me how fine Stevie Nicks was, and that she had looked at both of us and sang to us. He mumbled that I was a good looking kid and attracted women to us and he loved me, and his voice began to slur and he repeated himself a few times.
“Justin…” he mumbled. “You… you gonna help me drive…” And at that, he lifted me into his lap and gave me a quick instruction on how to drive his new truck. He’d operate the floor pedals, he said, and I’d help with steering and make sure the lights were on and a few other things. It would be just like Donald’s van, I thought, and I could drive even though my feet wouldn’t reach the pedals. It sounded like a lot of fun, I said. We were going to Sonny’s house, he said. I knew where that was, just a few blocks from the new state capital, in Spanish Town, a collection of old houses and shotgun shacks that my dad, Wendy, and Craig visited every now and then. Sonny had cocaine, my dad said, and that would sober him up. I had heard that before, and I was ready to drive to Sonny’s. I helped get the keys into the ignition and he cranked the truck to life, and we lowered the gear shift into drive, and the automatic transmission smoothly glided us away from the levee and onto the River Road towards the capital. His hands were on mine, and together we stayed straight. Less than a minute later we turned right into Spanish Town, and two stop signs later we turned left and pulled into Sonny’s front yard. My dad put the truck in park and laughed a deep, genuine laugh and told me how proud he was of me. I beamed.
We stumbled onto Sonny’s porch and my dad pounded on the door and Sonny opened up as if he were expecting people after the Fleetwood Mac show. He said it was good to see me and called me Jason – a rarity among my dad’s friends – and invited us inside where, of course, Rumors was playing on his record player. Over the next hour, I drank a Coke he and my dad smoked a joint and did a few lines of coke off the Rumors album cover and talked about the show, and how the band had written it while high on cocaine and sleeping with each other and breaking up and funneling that energy into Rumors; according to Wikipedia in 2022, they were right, and in 2022 I joke with my friends that I saw the 1977 Rumors tour and did Coke with my dad, which is mostly true.
We flew home, wide awake, and my dad rambled on about the show and spoke quickly and nonstop about Stevie and women liking me and how much fun we had with Sonny. But I grew tired, sluggish, and ready for bed. In a rare moment of silence, I said I was tired and wished I had some cocaine to sober up. My dad’s countenance switched rapidly, like it did whenever he was angry or telling me something important, and he turned towards me and pointed his finger in my face and told me to never use that word again, and to never talk about what he did with his friends to anyone. I apologized and said I wouldn’t, and he quickly reverted to his cheerful self, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and talking about music and friends and good times.
I woke up the next morning on the living room sofa. Donald was sober, and we chatted about the show and I never mentioned Sonny. He threw his head back and laughed when I said my dad was right, Miss Nicks was fine, and we talked about music and Jimmy Hoffa and drunk driving and Lagniappe in bags of weed. He was a wonderful person when sober, and I was sorry to see him go because when he was sober we had fun riding around in his wheelchair, but he said his dad had found him a house and that he was grateful for my dad, and that my dad was a good person. I agreed, and I helped him get his backpack packed and opened the carport door for him, and he rode down the ramp my dad had built and into his van’s elevator. I inspected his steering wheel and all it’s levers, confident I could drive it now, but cautious to not let anyone know I had driven to Sonny’s the night before. He turned the ignition and I walked back to the doorway and waved goodbye as he backed out of the carport and drove off to his new house that he seemed happy to have.
I heard my dad playing in his bedroom, and walked back. The bedroom across from his was open, and the baby was in the crib, flat on her back and unable to rotate with her cast, and crying softly. I realized her mom was probably with my dad. I opened their door and saw them wrestling, and she gasped in surprise but not embarrassment and rolled off my dad and under the sheets, and my dad boomed in his typically loud but not unkind voice that they were fucking and to shut the door and look after the baby and get her to stop crying. I apologized and shut the door and went into the baby’s room.
I didn’t know how to get her to stop crying. I asked nicely, but she didn’t. I lifted her up, balancing her on rigidly cast hips and legs and holding her hands against the crib’s rail, but she still kept crying. I pointed my finger at her face and sharpened my voice, but she still cried. I told her to shut up in a harsh tone, but to no avail. I slapped her face gently and pointed my finger and said shut up again, but cried even harder. I slapped harder the next time. After the third slap, she stopped crying, just as her mom walked in and saw me. Her baby wasn’t crying, but her cheek was red and I proudly said he had stopped crying when I slapped her, but she started bawling then and her mom rushed over and picked her up and ran outside and yelled at my dad and told him what I had done and left, walking to her apartment, probably the one near the Chinese restaurant on Florida Boulevard.
My dad seemed upset at me. I felt confused; I had done what he asked and hadn’t talked about Sonny and gotten the baby to stop crying and packed lots of Lagniappe into the baggies, but he seemed distraught, and, a rarity for him, at a loss for words. He sat down on the sofa with me and hugged me and held me tightly and had a sad tone in his voice when he whispered behind my ear that he loved me. I hugged him back and said I loved him, too, and was shocked to feel his body shuddering and to hear soft, subtle sobs.
We visited Big Daddy at his office off Airline Highway the next day, and it was a remarkable conversation because Big Daddy was going to prison. After Hoffa disappeared and was presumed dead, he had lost his federal protection and had been convicted of stealing $450,000 from the Baton Rouge Teamsters safe, which had recently been discovered at the bottom of shallow but murky local river, empty. The money was never recovered, and the only two witnesses were found beaten and bloody and the survivor refused to testify, but the jury had found Big Daddy guilty and he was going to prison. He and my dad argued about something I don’t recall – they argued a lot – but I was told it had to do with my dad wanting more money. Big Daddy never raised his voice or stopped smiling, but I watched my dad become quiet when Big Daddy pulled out his big elk-skinning knife and held it sideways near my dad’s ribs and calmly said to be quiet or he’d gut him. My dad began to leave, but Big Daddy stopped me and bent down and gave me a fishing rod, another fancy one like he had given me years before, and a small Buck pocket knife shaped like a skinning knife and with a locking blade. My dad was uncharacteristically quiet on the drive home, but I was so excited playing with my new knife and trying to figure out the locking mechanism that I didn’t mind.
A few days later, my dad dropped me back off at Wendy’s as usual, but something was wrong that time. Wendy was waiting for us outside and was crying. Her cheeks were puffy, like she had been crying for a long time. I hopped down from the truck and she began crying harder and I heard my dad exclaim something and saw him run towards Wendy and Anne’s crumpled body in a pool of blood by her feet.
“What happened?” my dad demanded in his most thunderous voice ever.
Wendy began crying more loudly and my dad bent over and followed the blood and using only two fingers he carefully opened a small hole in Anne’s side. She had been shot and bled to death, and by the look of the blood had drug herself to Wendy’s doorstep before dying. The house was near a large patch of woods where people hunted, and Anne had jumped Wendy’s tiny metal fence and ran off to the woods, perhaps hoping to help some hunters retrieve their game. Anne was too big for Wendy to move, and she had stood there, waiting for us to return, unsure what to do.
My dad held Anne and howled at the sky and buried his face into her body and sobbed. He cursed the people who shot her, saying they either missed and were irresponsible and should be reprimanded, or that they shot her intentionally and should be beaten. He repeatedly pointed to the hole and said it was a .22 long rifle, barely enough to kill a squirrel unless you were an excellent shot.
“Look!” he bellowed to me as he pointed at the hole. “Never shoot something unless you know you’ll kill it quickly,” he said before breaking down into sobs again, presumably imagining Anne suffering. He had always taught me to be a good shot and to know where I was shooting to quickly kill an animal, usually the head for a small rabbit or squirel, and through the heart and lungs for a deer, hopefully bypassing valuable meat. Ducks were always challenging, because their heads were small and the breast meat was best, but I had gotten so good with my .22 that I could shoot them through the neck; unless they were flying, then I needed a shotgun. He had always spoken about not wanting to see any living thing suffer, and we had always killed expertly, except for a few foxes caught in his traps and a single wild goat he had shot from 300 yards and needed to chase and shoot again. Anne was the first time I had seen him cry for another creature’s suffering, and he howled and pointed to the blood trail and said she had crawled home and he cursed whoever shot her, and I began to feel just as sad and I cried, too. I had seen dozens of dead animals before, but never one with a name, and never one that greeted me by jumping on me and licking my face.
He spent the next hour digging a grave for Anne in Wendy’s back yard, and Wendy hugged me and asked if I were okay. I was, only because I hadn’t grasped what it meant to die yet. I pet Anne and felt her body changing, deflating like Stretch had as she oozed blood and then stiffening as her muscles tightened, and I watched my dad heave her body into the hole and her head flap as she tumbled in. He covered her and walked away with a small mound of dirt indicating where my first love rested.
We stood in the kitchen as he drank water and berated Wendy for allowing Anne to escape the back yard. She said she didn’t know Anne could jump that high, and my dad said of course she didn’t because she was stupid. He pointed his finger at her as he accused her of being stupid, and then he tapped his finger into her chest to emphasize every word he said next. Her body inched back with every poke, and her eyes looked down in shame as he told her that she couldn’t keep an apartment or take care of a dog, so how could she take care of his son? He said that asshole judge was wrong, and that he could take care of me better and he was taking me to Arkansas with him. She said she had won custody and he couldn’t, and he pushed her and she began sobbing and he demanded to ask me what I thought.
“Justin, I mean Jason goddamnit!” He said it impatiently, angry at his repeated mistake that seemed to happen when his mind was either very happy and high or very angry and distracted. “Where do you want to live, Baton Rouge or Arkansas?”
I didn’t understand the question, and in my five year old logic I imagined living in Arkansas where I played with Anne and hunted and fished and my dad was happy, and Wendy being there to make me lunch and take me for walks and to go on bike rides. I looked back and forth between Wendy and my dad, unsure what to say.
She was sobbing and I felt what can only be described as sympathetic empathy, and I was sad too. Her arms were crossed and held tightly against her breasts and pushed her green heart necklace up in a bunch on her forearms. He was leaning towards me, intense and impatient, waiting for an answer. I said, “Arkansas,” and my dad bellowed at Wendy, “See!” and Wendy agreed to let me go to Arkansas. My dad left angrily and said he’d return in a week to take me to Arkansas, and Wendy cried and I cried with her. She misunderstood my empathetic tears for sadness about Anne, though I didn’t really understand death enough to be sad then. But, she stopped crying and focused on me and said that Anne wouldn’t suffer any more, and I felt better and stopped crying.
Later that week I tripped when running through my first grade playground and shattered my elbow in the cemented corner of a big concrete sewage pipe our school used as a playground tunnel. Wendy had to miss work to take me to two doctors visits, one for a temporary cast until swelling went down and another for a plaster cast. She cried when she saw the bills, confused by terms like “deductible” in her company’s health insurance policy, and we ate slightly less food that month. For me, the worse part of wearing a cast was not being able to open either of my pocket knives, especially my new one with the fancy locking mechanism. I tried to hold the blade and flick it open like I had seen Brian do with his knife, but the new knife was held tightly in the handle. I held the handle with my good hand and used my teeth to open the knife, but the mechanism made it slip from my teeth and it slammed shut and sliced my lip open on the way. I went to the hospital again to have my lip stitched close, and Wendy cried and took my Old Henry away from me – she hadn’t known about Big Daddy’s knife and thought I had cut myself with Paw Paw’s Old Henry – and when I cried because I loved that knife, for some reason I said through tears that I wanted to see Paw Paw, and at his name Wendy yelled and said he didn’t want to see me again and that the knife he gave me cost her more than her insurance would pay and she may loose her house while I was gone to Arkansas and no one was helping her any more, and when I cried more loudly because Paw Paw didn’t want to see me she slapped me until I stopped crying.
She didn’t loose her house, and I only went to Arkansas part-time. My dad’s cabin was so remote that there wasn’t a reasonable way to attend school and the law required that I attend school or I’d be taken from my parents again and presumably Mr. White wouldn’t take me this time, so Wendy and my dad compromised and I began spending three months of summer vacation in Arkansas, returning to Baton Rouge for the fall semester, and spending one or two weeks in Arkansas for holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring break during Easter week. During each of my visits, my dad would ensure I had lots of .22 long rifle rounds to practice shooting, and he’d let me shoot his 12 gage shotgun and .307 rifle to prepare for larger firearms, but he emphasized the importance of being accurate and knowing where to shoot an animal so that it died quickly and mercifully, and to never forget that someone didn’t do that for Anne.
I never told Wendy I had another knife, and we never spoke of Paw Paw again. Wendy and I would play on our bicycles and she added a small vegetable garden in the back yard for me because I liked gardening with my dad so much, and I’d water my plants and sit beside Anne’s grave and over time noticed the mound of dirt eventually growing grass again and then gradually flattening and becoming level and then sinking into a shallow divet beside my garden, and I began to understand what death meant. Wendy and I would talk about how much we had loved Anne and how much we missed her, and I even cried tears of sadness over her grave as I grew to understand that the sinking soil meant she was going away forever. But Wendy and I never discussed what I did with my dad or who blew up Donald’s house or what happened to my dad’s girlfriend and the little girl in leg casts, and I never saw them again and soon forgot them. His other girlfriends would come and go frequently, but he never got another dog and to this day gets a sad look on his face whenever he remembers Anne. He says she could never be replaced.
My dad would disagree on my things that would happen in our lives together. He’d swear we went to Fleetwood Mac’s Gold tour, which would have been in 1980 and wasn’t as big of a success as the Rumors album, but many of the 1977 songs would have been played. Wendy had lost her apartment in 1977, but a lot was happening around then and I may have confused which fine home we were staying in around the concert. And news articles and court records show that Big Daddy lost his state appeal in 1979 and went to prison in 1980, which means it’s likely that my memories are flawed. But that’s forgivable for a a six to eight year old kid, and I was often high and may not have been paying attention to details. But, regardless of small disagreements on timelines and though I never learned who blew up Donald’s house or why, 40 years later my dad would smile a big smile with greyed teeth and cavities from lack of flouride, and we’d agree on two things about that time period without any doubt between us about our time together in the late 1970’s: Anne was a good dog, and Stevie Nicks was, indeed, fine.
“Like this, Uncle J?” she asked too late that evening. I tried not to grimace as she moved the record needle too quickly and scratched my 1977 Rumors album. The cover still had white fingerprints behind a piece of Scotch tape, rumored to be 1970’s cocaine, the really good stuff; or so I had been told.
It was a collectible album and worth a lot of money at the second hand vinyl store up the street. But, I had told her she could do no wrong, and thought it wasn’t easy, I focused on how nice the Balboa holiday lights were outside our window that night, and I began to look forward to December Nights and that took my mind off the Rumors album. Mostly.
Before she went to bed, I told her that I bet I knew what she was thinking about Anne. “I bet you think that Anne was named after Dan and Ann,” I said, overconfidently.
They were two coon hounds in Where the Red Fern Grows. That had been my dad’s favorite book as a kid. The only one he ever read in school, he said. Yet he could recall it verbatim years later, telling me a chapter each night as we listened to crickets before bedtime. Or he’d tell a part one day, animated and full of life. Those days were usually when we were playing in the woods around our cabin with Anne, and he’d pausing for me to get a point or to taste a blackberry or trim his marijuana plants. Dan and Ann had been good dogs, he had said. Good hunters. And they lived in the Ozark Mountains, maybe in the same valley as our cabin! There was no one around for miles, and we had all the time in the world, he said.
We’d even go looking for them, exploring and playing and having Anne fetch sticks or retrieve ducks from the Little Archie Creek that stretched all along the thickly wooded hillsides. And he told me how Billy had earned the money for his puppies by picking blackberries along The Little Archie Creek that flowed down the valley and past our cabin, and where we played and fished and picked berries with Anne, and where she retrieved our ducks in the winter and killed the rats in our barn all year long.
And I knew his mind swapped names often, and I never worried that he called me Justin sometimes, especially when he was high, and that was often. I knew he had a Justin, too, and that Justin’s mom had left, too, just like Jennifer’s, and he missed all of his children badly. Anne gave him something to love when I wasn’t there. I know he a lot of mistakes, but he loved us as best he could. I had always assumed he named her after Dan and Ann.
“No I wasn’t,” she corrected me, and reminded me what I had said we do when we assume something.
“He named Anne after Wendy Anne Rothdram,” she said, matter of factly.
I hadn’t thought about that. I remember seeing Anne’s epithet carved into wood, and had no doubt from her epithet that my dad spelled it like Wendy had, and I hadn’t considered that Billy hand’t used an he when he named his Dan and Ann.
I love you, I said, and left her room and ordered a copy of Where the Red Fern grown for her bookshelf.
That’s the end of Part One.