Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.Exodus 20:12
My first vivid memory is also one of my most flawed. It’s a Saturday morning in April of 1976. I’m in my foster family’s ramshackle two bedroom, one bath, ranch home off of the coincidently named Foster Road, near the intersection of Plank Road and not far from Glen Oaks High School, about 30 miles north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.1 I wake up to the smell of PawPaw, and open my eyes to see his smiling face.
Hey d’er, Lil’ Buddy, he says. ’Bout time you woke up.
He smells like cigarettes, coffee, a common and inexpensive aftershave that a lot of men his age used, probably Old Spice, and that bottle of oil next to the bathroom sink that kept his black and grey-speckled hair slicked back like the hair old photos of Jimmy Hoffa and Pat Riley. He’s wearing a clean but oil-stained long-sleeve collared grey work shirt and similarly stained brown pants, the heavy-duty ones that don’t wear out as quickly and last long enough to be thoroughly stained by chainsaw oil and car grease. All of his clothes smell like MawMaw’s powdered laundry soap, a strangely appealing scent that’s simultaneously stifling yet initing, probably because it means clean. I think it’s the smell of clean clothes that woke me up every morning.
I sit up from the living room couch, toss off my sheet and blanket, and hop onto the floor. I’m ready to begin a day of helping PawPaw climb some trees and save them from termites. Spring was here, and bugs were waking up and sniffing around, seeking weak spots in branches that had broken off or were damaged during the fall hurricane season. I hug his smiling face and scuttle to the bathroom. I pee, then step onto the stool PawPaw put by the sink, wash my hands, and dart out the door so other people can use the bathroom.
I almost run into MawMaw on my way out. She’s in her clean but worn bath robe that was probably once bright white, and only smells like laundry soap once a week or so. She’s smiling broadly despite not having had her coffee yet.
Good morning, Hon! she says.
I smile and giggle, knowing what’s about to happen. She squats down and her robe covers her matching slippers, and she says, Gimme some shugga’! I giggle and squirm, and she says it again, more menacing this time. I try to stifle my giggles so I don’t wake the baby. I’d gotten good at laughing out loud in my mind but with only a titter escaping my tightly pressed lips ever since Craig and Linda had the baby and moved back and took my room.
Gimme some shugga’, she says a third time, Or I’m gonna take it!
She tries to force a serious look on her face, but she only as good at that as I was at sniffling giggles; her grin shines through her tight lips and I know what’s really happening in her mind, and that adds to my anticipation. I cringe and my body winds up like a coiled spring. She slowly reaches towards me with both hands. My tension builds. She grasps my the shoulders and begins smacking kisses all over my cheeks, and my springs unleash and I bounce around and try to shield my face. I loose control and begin to guffaw loudly.
Shhhh, she says softly, putting her first finger to her still smiling lips. She says: Everyone else is still asleep. Go help PawPaw make breakfast.
I restrain my laughter and my lips are quivering as they fight to open and laugh. Slowly, I lower my guard. MawMaw takes advantage of my relaxing and smacks another shugga’ on my cheek like a patient shugga’ sniper: one dash, one smooch centered right on the cheek. I wiggle and giggle, and she puts a finger to her smiling lips and then takes her turn in the bathroom.
I walk past the full-length hallway mirror and living room and into the kitchen and step onto the stool PawPaw put there. He’s making a pot of coffee for everyone else. I ask him if we gonna climb trees today.
No, Lil’ Buddy, he says. Wendy gonna pick you up today. You can help t’morrow.
I must look disappointed, because he says, But MawMaw’s outta milk and cookie dough, so we can walk to d’ store and get some.
He smiles and I smile back. Across from the store was the biggest, most stately live oak in all of Baton Rouge, and it had a branch made just for me. I say that I’d like that.
There was no milk for cereal, so PawPaw makes a batch of instant pancakes with water and an egg, finished with a big scoop of something television said you wouldn’t believe wasn’t butter, and smothered in Aunt Jamima syrup. They looked just like the pancakes on the box; the adds said pancakes were part of a complete breakfast, if you included a bowl of fruit, a glass of orange juice, and maybe a cup of oatmeal. We ate facing the window above the sink, and devoured the picture-perfect pancakes in a faster instant than they took to make. The kitchen table was behind us, between the counter and the refrigerator, but it was cluttered with PawPaw’s tools, my Lone Ranger cowboy hat and wooden train set from Christmas, and a couple of big boxes of diapers with a picture of a smiling blonde baby that looked nothing like the shriveled raisin sleeping in my old room. I peered through the window and through the dirty screen that was fuzzy from dusty spider webs packed with shriveled bugs and deflated spider egg sacks; MawMaw had said they were like the baby spiders from Charlotte’s Web, so there was no need to wipe them away. Beyond the web, I could see the big rusty gate between us and the fishing pond. I stare at the gate; it looks smaller from where I stand. I had been trying to climb it for as long as I could remember, but the round bars were too big for my hands and I kept slipping off. Maybe today will be the day, I thought. Maybe my hands have gotten bigger than last week.
Beyond the gate and between the pond and the barn, I see piles of tree limbs by the pond from last weekend’s work that he had unloaded on Sunday. The rusty pickup truck wasn’t there. I can’t recall which type of truck – I’ve never been good at identifying automobiles – but it was probably a late 60’s Ford F150, more common in Baton Rouge because of a couple of Ford dealerships. But all big trucks looked the same to me: beds littered with rusty tools, a giant steering wheel, and a single bench seat too high up for me to climb into. And they all had the same rumble, a deep sound that you felt in your chest, unlike a car’s barely noticeable mumble. PawPaw’s truck was probably in the driveway, because he used it during the week to go to his weekday side-gig. On Saturday mornings, we drove it to old plantations around Baton Rouge and as far north as Saint Francsiville to save their trees, and we brought home the branches and anything else the families needed hauling away and burned them on Sundays. I always helped by picking up twigs and small branches, sometimes even climbing up one of the low hanging branches to break it off.
We’re putting away dishes when MawMaw walks in, looking like a different person. She’s wearing a flowery sundress, her greying hair is stacked in an improbably tall beehive, and she’s wearing her bright red lipstick. She smells like the cans of hairspray in the bathroom and the makeup counter of Dillards in Cortana Mall. She threatens to give me some shugga’ and I giggle, but she gives it to PawPaw instead and pours a cup of coffee into a white mug with brown stains inside the bottom. I hear Craig and Linda stirring and taking their turns in the bathroom, but the baby isn’t crying and is probably still asleep.
PawPaw tells MawMaw we’re walking to the store and will be back in a minute. She says she’ll clean up, and gives him some shugga. He grabs an old potato from a bag on the washing machine by the deep-freezer filled with fish sticks and deer meat, and we step through the carport door. He pauses by the refrigerator-sized cricket cage and pulls out his Old Henry pocket knife and opens the long blade, cuts the potato into chunks, and tosses the chunks around the cage. Crickets need breakfast, too, he says. He puts away the Old Henry and reaches left hand down for me to hold. I reach up and clasp it with my right hand, and we walk up the gravel driveway, turn left, and stroll along the overgrown grass and thistles along Foster Road with PawPaw between me and the blacktop. We head towards the convenience store and the big oak tree. Some cars speed along the blacktop and aren’t used to people walking beside it, PawPaw had said, which is why I hold his hand when we walk to the store. Along the way, I wave my hand across the tops of wild grass that’s almost as tall as I am, feeling it tickle my palm and watching the blade spring back up.
We reach the tree on our side of the intersection with a traffic light, Plank Road, the one that goes past the airport. Sometimes, planes roar overhead and my body vibrates like when I’m standing next to PawPaw’s rumbling truck. Almost always, cars rush past, coming from Glen Oaks and mumbling up Plank Road to reach the airport or I-110, either going south, towards downtown and the old state capital hill where PawPaw took me sledding on flattened cardboard boxes; or north, towards the smoking towers of chemical alley and the wide-open playground of Fort Pickens State Park. Few cars stopped or even slowed down. Not many people lived near us. That was fine by me: it let me have the big oak tree all to myself.
I lurch forward before my hand lets loose from PawPaw’s, and when I’m free I run towards the cradle formed in one of the tree’s mighty branches. The cradle’s about 40 or 50 feet from the trunk, almost 2/3 along a long and undulating branch formed as the tree fought gravity using the best effort it could muster with each year’s growing conditions. No parking lots blocked air for its roots, and no foot traffic compacted its soil. It’s branches were long and strong. Grey Spanish moss hung all over them in bunches, but most was out of my reach. I pause under my branch and to stretch my hand and try to snag some moss, but I still can’t reach it. Instead, I grab the top of the cradle in my branch and curve my fingers around its textured bark.
I heave and heave, but I can’t pull myself off the ground. My hands don’t slip, I’m just not strong enough yet. PawPaw walks behind me, and I feel his hands under my arms and I gain the strength to pull myself up and into the cradle. I pause with a leg on either side and appreciate my accomplishment for less than a pancake instant, then I’m looking up and trying to reach another branch. I can’t, but I can grasp a handful of Spanish moss and pull it down and make myself look like an old man with a grey beard and that’s good enough for now. PawPaw reaches up and grabs a handful for himself, and we stare at each other’s bearded faces and laugh together like two old friends.
Aw right, Lil’ Buddy, he says. We gotta go. Wendy gonna pick you up soon.
He sets his moss on the branch and reaches up both hands for me. I keep my moss and swing my leg over and drop into his arms. I hit the ground, take his hand, and we walk to the traffic light and wait to cross. At the store, I put my beard back on before PawPaw pushes the glass door open. The same man is working behind the counter. He flashes the largest white teeth I’d ever seen, probably seeming that way because they contrasted against his dark black skin.
Hey d’er, Mr. Ed, he says, talking to PawPaw but looking down at at me and smiling that toothy smile. Who y’ got with you today?
I giggle and whip off my disguise and tell him it’s me. He’s surprised and tells me he didn’t recognize me, and I put the beard back on and he says I look just like an old tree elf. He and I chat while PawPaw gets a carton of Blue Bell milk and a cylinder of chocolate chip cookie dough, the one with a package showing Keebler elves baking cookies in a tree that looked just like a stately oak tree, but with shorter branches, probably just to make the artwork fit on the package.
PawPaw comes to the counter with the milk and dough and a six-pack of Miller Lite pony bottles and they laugh and talk about things I don’t recall. The man laughs at something PawPaw says, and reaches up and pulls down a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes without a missing a beat in their conversation. He puts everything in a paper bag that fits under PawPaw’s arm, and we say goodbye and I take PawPaw’s free hand and we walk out. We cross the intersection and stop at the tree. I place my moss in the cradle, take PawPaw’s hand again, and we walk home as I rattle on about how I could climb the tree all by myself now. He says of course I can, because I’m Jason Partin, and I can do anything I want if I keep trying. He pronounces my last name with his Mississippi drawl and just shy of two syllables: Pah’in. I beam and probably skipped a bit as we walked, happy to be with my PawPaw and without a care in the world. We get home and put away the groceries, and he puts a Camel in his mouth and pulls out his dented Zippo. He pauses before he lights it and waits. I see that his cigarette is backwards again, and I tell him the little camel is away from his lips and will burn up if he lights it. He chuckles and thanks me and flips the filterless cigarette around and tells me how smart I am, and how lucky he is to have me around. He lights the unmarked end of his Camel, takes a drag, and holds it in one hand while he pours another cup of coffee from the pot MawMaw must have made while we were gone. I can hear her in the back, laughing with Craig and Linda. The baby’s still quiet.
Just before PawPaw finishes his cigarette, when the little camel is still visible, I hear gravel crunching in the driveway as Wendy pulls up in PawPaw’s faded yellow Datsun hatchback; I only know it was a Datsun because that’s what PawPaw called it. Not a car or the car, but the Datsun, probably to differentiate it from the other cars by the barn waiting to be repaired. PawPaw walks outside through the carport door, and I follow. Wendy gets out of the drivers seat and Debbie gets out of the passenger seat, and I rush towards Debbie. My feet are making crunching sounds as the gravel makes way each time one of my feet lands. Debbie squats down as best she can – she’s a bit plump – and opens her arms and I fall into them and we give each other the biggest hugs ever. She doesn’t have to squat much because she’s not much taller than I am. Wendy comes around and squats down and waits for me with a sad look in her eyes, though I didn’t know what that meant back then; it was just how she looked a lot when she picked me up or dropped me off at PawPaw’s. She’s a bit taller than Debbie, but fit and athletic and can squat all the way down. I leave Debbie and rush to her, and she smiles more like her usual smile, the one she wore when we were playing at the park. When she smiles, her hazel eyes crinkle like an old lady’s crows feet, and she tells me she’s happy to see me. I say I’m happy to see her, too. They both smell like cigarettes and pot, though I’m not supposed to use that word.
PawPaw says they’s running late, so we should hurry. He begins unloading stacks of Yellow Pages from MawMaw’s car and loading them into the Datsun’s hatchback and back seat. Debbie, Wendy, and I help. Soon the Datsun is so full that it’s sitting low. Even Debbie’s passenger floorboard is filled. The only space left is for me is atop a few of the yellow books in the back passenger seat. Debbie and Wendy and PawPaw step back to inspect the work and smoke cigarettes and talk and laugh about things I don’t recall. When they’re done smoking, PawPaw boosts me up to sit atop the stack of Yellow Pages. My feet rest on the books piled into the floorboard. From my perch, I can see out the front window. To my right, I see Wendy and Debbie saying goodbye to PawPaw. They get in, and Wendy turns the key a couple of times until it shudders to a start. She puts it into first gear, lurches forward, and it stalls. She and Debbie laugh and say something about learning how to drive a stick. Wendy restarts on the first try, and we lurch forward again. I hear the gravel shooting up as Wendy accelerates and turns right onto the blacktop, and snap forward as she shifts into second gear and then third and fourth. Soon, we’re in fifth and flying north on Foster Road, the windows cracked and crisp April air circulating around us bringing in the smell of springtime flowers.
The route Wendy always took passed a small public park, barely the size of the patch of grass in front of the Fort Pickens museum. It has creaking swings, a wobbly merry-go-round, and a couple of concrete sewer tubes for crawling over and in and out. It’s near a 7/11, which is like a convenience store but without a tree to climb. We stop and get Slushies. Wendy and Debbie get Coke again, and I stick with cherry; it turns my lips red like MawMaw’s. We park at the park and sit inside to slurp the Slushies. Wendy turns on the radio.
Debbie and Wendy squeal, and Debbie turns up the radio. They begin singing along to Janis Joplin’s song about Baton Rouge, and Wendy turns towards me with her crinkly smile and says, Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train. The train tracks are nearby but I had never seen a train, so I knew what she meant. I say the same thing, but by then the song’s gone on and Wendy and Debbie are looking at each other and not really noticing me.
Debbie finishes rolling a perfectly formed, dainty joint, runs her tongue along the flap, and deftly drags her thumb along it to seal the tube. She puts away her little hand-sewn pot bag with all the blue and red flowers on it and hands the joint to Wendy, who cracks her window and lights it with her plastic lighter and takes a drag. Debbie faces me and sings more of Me and Bobby McGee. 2 She emphasizes the part about a dirty red bandanda, probably because she carried a blue one that matched the color of the flowers on her pot bag and her eyes. It was old, like MawMaw’s robe, and had been washed so many times that the bright blue was faded and soft; not as crisp of a blue as Keith or Big Daddy’s sky blue eyes, but a subtle blue that was less obvious, like her little bag. Sometimes she wore the faded blue bandana around her neck, and sometimes she folded it into a triangle and wore it like a pirate’s hat atop her straight dark black hair. I never saw her blow her nose or wipe out sawdust with it, like PawPaw did with his white one. PawPaw had said that the Lone Ranger carried a white one that let people know he kept himself clean, even when riding Silver, and to soak up water from shallow springs and squeeze some out for Silver to drink. I asked Debbie why Janis had a dirty bandana, and she laughed and said it was dirty because she didn’t have a home with a washing machine, like I did, and that I was a lucky kid. I agreed.
After Me and Bobby McGee finished and Wendy turned off the radio, but before the joint was finished, Debbie kept me entertained by teaching me a new magic trick. She used to pull my nose off and put it back on, but I eventually realized it wasn’t my nose, it’s Debbie’s thumb. She had showed me how, and I had gotten so good at it I could fool PawPaw and MawMaw every time. On that Saturday, she showed me her next iteration: pulling off her left thumb with her right hand. That one stumps me, and I say just as much after I stop giggling. She does it again. I giggle again, but I think I see how to do it and try. I fail. (I had kept my thumb straight instead of tucking it between my fingers.) She shows me how to hide my thumb in my fist and poke the tip between my first and second fingers. I try again, and it looks better. But, I couldn’t nail it down quickly like I had with the nose trick, and I kept trying with Debbie’s input now and then. We kept practicing until the joint was a roach too small to smoke. Debbie didn’t keep a roach clip in her bag like the one my dad kept in his truck, so they put the spent joint in the Datsun’s roach tray and we finally go play on the merry-go-round.
Wendy and Debbie take turns spinning me around and around, faster and faster. The wobbling subsides into a steady arc higher on the side away from them, bringing me to what seems like their eye-level. The creaks of old and neglected bearings made a melody faster than the beat of windshield wipers, and sweeter than anything on the radio. The colors of the trees seemed more vibrant than the usual subdued green leaves and brown bark and grey moss, and the blooming red azelas seemed brighter than any of Craig’s paintings, as bright as my Slushie and MawMaw’s lipstick. I was probably just high, and I’m not talking about the far side of the merry-go-round, but that’s okay because it felt pretty good. Wendy’s having so much fun she won’t stop laughing. She’s giggling and walks a few feet away to the edge of the park, near some azelea bushes under a couple of tall pine trees. She picks off an azelea and tucks it into her strawberry blonde hair above her right ear. She skips back to the swing set beside us, stands on one of the thick sagging plastic swing seats, grasps the chains with both hands, and leans back while pushing her feet forward. She begins swinging and sports the sweetest smile you’ve ever seen, her eyes are crinkled like an old lady’s crow’s feet; though she’s silent, I can see her laughing in her mind, and I feel happier without realizing it or knowing why. I feel myself breathing, and smell the pine and rust and pot. Debbie must have felt it too, because she’s giggling beside me. Though she never got on the merry-go-round or swings or sewer pipes with Wendy and me, Debbie always sat by my side and laughed with me when Wendy took a turn on a swing by herself.
On the way home, we stop at Brian the one-armed drug dealer’s house. It’s full of people smoking pot who seem to know Debbie and Wendy well, though Brian is the only one who remembers my name. Sometimes Craig and Linda were there, and Craig would be painting murals on the outside walls of people dancing among moss-draped trees, but I hadn’t seen them there since they moved back to PawPaw’s. Once, Wendy and Debbie took me to see Craig’s paintings at Houma Plantation, where we’d sometimes go instead of the park or Brian’s house. It was a full joint away. Without them, Brian was the only person I knew. He says he’s happy to see me, and shows me the motorcycle he was trying to rig so that he could ride again. He heaves me up with his arm and sets me on the motorcycle seat and shows me how to pull the new cables on the right handle that pull the clutch on the left side. It was interesting, but I told him I was hungry and wanted cookies. He apologized and said they didn’t have any. I must have looked disappointed, because Wendy stepped over and said she’d take me home. She said it would be just us, because Debbie was staying. I looked over and saw her sitting cross-legged around her friends. Her little bag was out on the big wooden telephone spool Brian used as a coffee table, and she’s rolling a joint with both hands. (Brian could do it with one, like cowboy heroes on TV.) She pauses and waves goodbye, and I wave back. Wendy and I get in the Datsun. I’m in the front seat. We wave goodbye and move forward smoothly after a day of practice, starting and stopping at each house while Debbie and I hustled Yellow Pages to doorsteps. We drive along Foster Road with the windows rolled up.
I doze off inside the warm and windless car, but wake up to Wendy shaking me and talking to a man’s face peering into her window. He glances at me and was smiling like Brian smiled. I had never seen a police officer before, but his uniform and shiny gold badge radiated some type of importance that told me this was worth paying attention to.
I’m sorry, officer, Wendy says, still shaking me. My brother’s feeling sick and I was trying to get him home. I was scared and didn’t know what to do.
He looks at me and smiles kindly like Brian, and asks in a gentle tone, What’s your name, son?
Jason Partin, I say, pronouncing my name like Debbie did, with a Cajun accent and two clear syllables. Her name was Debbie LeBeaux, pronounced L’Bow, like the LSU football chant, “Geaux Tigers!”, and she pronounced my name like the women I saw on PawPaw’s television in a commercial for Patin the Plumber, the one where a woman sees her overflowing toilet and wags a finger at her puppy-dog faced husband and says in a cheerful voice, “You shoulda called Pa’tan!” Most adults, other than Debbie and PawPaw, pronounced my name like the big bosomed country singer Dolly Parton. I don’t know why I pronounced it Pa’tan that day, but I assume Debbie had been teaching me new French words at some point, or she may have said my name in her accent and it stuck. Or I may have still been high and not thinking clearly enough to say my own name.
The officer is holding what I now know was Wendy’s driver’s license, and he gazes down at it and then back up at me, and his smile broadens. I hope you feel better, Jason, he says, looking me in the eyes. Glancing back at Wendy, his smile fades and he says that she should slow down and get home safely. She laughs awkwardly and says she will, and takes her license back with a shaking hand. He stands back and Wendy moves forward slowly and smoothly.
We pull away so slowly and smoothly that I don’t feel the motion, and for a moment I’m confused as I watch the officer seemingly walk backwards without moving his legs. He goes out of sight and I lean between the seats and peer at him and his car behind us, and only then realize that we’re moving forward and he’s standing still. I keep staring backwards at his car. On it’s roof, red and blue lights revolve in alternating levels of intensity. They’re mesmerizing, and I stare at them for a moment before noticing that the lights bounce off the officer’s shiny gold badge. He must have seen me staring, because he smiles and waves. I smile and wave back and notice his Batman utility belt. It has a revolver pistol like The Lone Ranger’s, and lots of impressive looking gadgets hanging all around his waist. I decide I’d like to be like that, whatever that was, if I got to wear a Batman utility belt. I turn around and look ahead, and my body reminds me how hungry I feel. Fortunately, we’re driving along a part of the blacktop that I know isn’t too far from home.
Wendy’s hands are shaking and she nervously tells me not to tell Mr. White that we got pulled over by a cop. I say okay, and figure it’s a secret like Debbie’s pot bag, or how to make your thumb look like someone’s nose. Besides, it wasn’t important compared to how hungry as I was.
We turn left into PawPaw’s driveway and stop, and I open the door hop out before Wendy turns off the car. My feet land on the gravel with a satisfying crunch and I immediately start running towards the carport. MawMaw opens the carport door before I arrive and steps into the frame. I rush past her car, and she steps through the door and squats beside the cricket cage and opens her arms. I practically leap into her hug, and she squeezes me and I hear her say: Gimme some shugga!
I squeal in delight and try to escape her arms and she has a huge grin and says, I’m gonna get me some shugga! I squeal again and abandon trying to escape, and instead I throw up my hands and cover my face in defense. She has that bright red lipstick on, and I know what that means. Despite my best efforts, she manages to plant several red stains on my cheeks, forehead, and backs of my hands; every time I had covered one spot, Ieft another exposed. Like I said, she was a shugga’ sniper, an expert at baiting me to move and expose my cheeks.
Tell Wendy goodbye, she says. I turn around and wave goodbye. Wendy’s standing beside the Datsun and waves back. She has that sad look again, but I don’t recognize it for what it is and quickly turn around and rush inside and wipe off the red shugga’ and to wash my hands so I can eat some cookies.
I pause at the hallway mirror and inspect my face. MawMaw was good. She had planted a few smooches on each cheek. The brightest red and most like a pair of lips is on my forehead, the first spot I had left exposed. The ones on my cheeks were faint red and unrecognizable as lips. The ones on the backs of my hands were somewhere in between. I step into the bathroom and onto my stool and turn on the faucet and scrub them all off. Back in the kitchen, MawMaw already has a plate of cookies and a glass of milk waiting. Outside the window, I see smoke from PawPaw’s fires and a few of his male employees tossing wood onto them. His truck is just outside of the gate. Someone is unloading wood from the back.
MawMaw asks what I did all day. I show her how I could take off my thumb. She’s impressed, and makes a serious face and asks how I did it. I tell her it’s a secret, and that a magician never tells secrets. Instead, I tell her about the big, fancy houses Debbie and I ran to and from delivering Yellow Pages, and about the Slushies and the merry-go-round.
I finish the cookies and help MawMaw wash the plate. She tells me to go watch television so that she can make dinner. I go into the living room, push the television on and rotate the dial until I find the reruns of Adam West as Batman that came on every Saturday afternoon, just before The Lone Ranger. I crawl onto the couch and think that the man today had a better utility belt than Batman. I grab a few tools from off the coffee table and shove them in a leather work belt pouch and begin making my own utility belt. I hear PawPaw comes inside and MawMaw tell him where I am. He walks in smelling like diesel smoke and chainsaw oil, and says, Hey d’er, Lil’ Buddy. Whatcha makin’?
A utility belt, I say. Better than Batmans! He chuckles and tells me that’s a smart thing to do, and goes to the bathroom to take a shower. I hear the baby crying in my old room, which is now Craig and Linda’s room, and hear them speaking softly until the baby stops crying. After I clean off the coffee table, we all eat dinner together around the television. Craig, who’s name is Craig Black – Linda White is now Linda Black – jokes in his sleepy, stoned voice that we live in a Black and White household. Everyone laughs, and I laugh, too, though I didn’t get the joke back then. We watch The Lone Ranger together and I wear my utility belt and make a pistol with my fingers and pretend to shoot at the TV. I don’t recall what we had for dinner, though it was likely fish sticks and macaroni and cheese with sides of Wonder white bread; nor do I recall what we watched after dinner, when PawPaw and MawMaw chose the channel. It was an unremarkable evening. After everyone goes to bed, MawMaw lays out my covers on the couch and kisses my forehead goodnight. She had washed up, so she left no shugga stains. I sleep peacefully.
I wake up early Sunday morning to the smell of PawPaw by my side, wash my hands, and make myself a bowl of Rice Crispies, with the little elves on the box that go Snap! Crackle! and Pop! PawPaw said we’d be burning wood after someone shows up and I could help them. That day it was my uncle, Big Keith Partin, pronounced like Parton. He’s my dad’s little brother, but he’s a giant, like all the Partins. His frame fills the carport door, and he makes PawPaw look tiny. PawPaw’s barely taller than Wendy or Debbie, but I only notice when Kieth is around, because he makes everyone look tiny. He looks just like Big Daddy, with the same blue eyes, bulky frame, and perpetual smile; but Keith’s as big and obviously younger. He has short wavy hair the same strawberry blonde as Wendy’s, and his eyes are lighter than Debbie’s and more like the sky, just like Big Daddy’s, Uncle Doug’s, and Grandma Foster’s; I have my dad’s dark tree-bark brown eyes, like Mamma Jean and Aunt Janice’s. Keith smiles at me like Brian does, and he also remembers my name. He tells me I’ve grown and asks me to make a muscle. I do. So does he. His is bigger. He laughs gently and says hard work and exercise makes you stronger.3
We walk to the back, by the pond that’s between the house and barn. Keith and PawPaw begin burning piles of wood, strategically placing the piles atop fire-ant mounds; the name isn’t a coincidence, fire-ants are called that because when you step in a mound an army of them races up your leg, and their bites burn like fire. Gas and diesel is like napalm to them, and worth every bit of danger to put out the fire when they’re attacking. They don’t let me near the ant miles and piles of wood, so I stay by the gate and ask why I can’t help; I’m bigger now. PawPaw takes out his cigarette and says that the scar on my dad’s leg was from someone pouring gasoline on him to get the fire-ants to let loose, and his pants caught on fire because he was standing next to the burning wood.
That’s why we use diesel, PawPaw says. It don’t burn as quick as gas do. He puts his cigarette back between his lips and pours diesel on a fresh pile of branches stacked atop a knee-high ant mound. Keith carries a branch bigger than PawPaw from the back of the truck and heaves it onto the pile, and they light the diesel. The smoke rises, and they go to and from the barn, hauling wood and trash to be burned.
I hadn’t brought my cane pole and mesh cricket tube. I’m bored. I look up at the gate. It’s leaning against the thick round pine-tree poles that used to hold it up. It’s much taller than the barb wire fence that circles the old cow farm. It was taller than Keith, probably eight feet or so and almost just as wide, with about six round horizontal bars going to the top. I grabbed one and put a foot on another. It didn’t have the texture of tree bark and was slippery, but I moved upwards anyway. Soon, I was grasping the top bar with my right hand, the stronger one, and as I swung my left hand up I felt myself move. The trees outside of the pasture seemed to walk backwards like the police officer had, but I knew I was moving and could feel myself going faster and faster. I clung to the top bar with both hands and my feet slipped off their rung. I held on for a brief moment with both hands curved over the round bars, dangling as perfectly vertical as a surveyors plumb line, but couldn’t grip all around the bar and I slipped off. I hit the ground a moment before the gate came crashing down onto my head, crumpling me under it’s weight. I scream and scream, louder than I had ever screamed before
Ed! Ed! I hear Keith yell. Come quick! It’s Jason!
I could hear myself screaming and could see the world turned sideways. Keith was at 90 degrees, running towards me with huge strides made by his long legs. Behind him was a dark cloud of diesel smoke rising from one of the freshly lit piles.
Ed! He’s hurt! Come on!
PawPaw emerges through the smoke, running so fast it’s more like he’s flying over the ground, his legs a blur of motion. I can still hear myself screaming. I think I understand I’m on my side, and Keith and PawPaw and the world are straight, but that may be my adult mind seeing through my four year old eyes.
Keith reaches me first and heaves the gate off me as if it were a small branch to be discarded. He picks me up and cradles me in his arms and shouts, Oh God, Ed! He’s bleedin’ bad! Hurry!
Get in d’ truck! PawPaw yells. He’s waving his arm as he runs. Get in d’ truck! D’ passenger side. Go!
Keith reaches the truck in a couple of strides and flings the creaky door open and slides inside with me cradled in his left arm. My head is by the steering wheel. I’m shrieking. Dark red blood is pooling in the cracked vinyl bucket seat so quickly that it forms lakes in the butt indentations, flows like rivers through the cracks, and cascades like small red waterfalls into the passenger floorboard by Keith’s feet. I’m still screaming.
PawPaw flings open the driver’s door and leaps in. In one smooth motion he slams the door and cranks the ignition and throws the steering column shift into gear and accelerates faster than I had ever felt that truck go. My head moves backwards, and Keith adjusts his arms and exclaims something about all the blood. The truck kicks up gravel as we pass the house, and sends a wave of rocks onto the blacktop as PawPaw turns a hard left without slowing down. The momentum empties the lakes of blood onto the floorboard.
Oh God Ed! He’s bleedin’ bad! Hurry!
No one had to tell PawPaw to hurry, he was a force of nature hell-bent on savin’ his Lil’ Buddy. The truck engine roared louder than it ever had and the universe buckled to PawPaw’s will. We fly down Foster Road and approach full speed when we reach the Plank Road intersection. He sticks his head and left arm out the window, and waves his white handkerchief up and down in rapid motions, higher than the roof and back down, again and again. He’s shouting: Get out d’ way! Get out d’ way! His right arm is strained from pulling the old truck’s massive steering wheel to force it into an improbably sharp left turn. Wheels screech against blacktop. The universe abides, and cars on Plank Road part like the Red Sea did for Moses and his followers. I see cars stopped between us and the big oak tree, and in my memory’s eye I see the branch with my cradle, pointing us in the right direction. The truck’s angular momentum shifts my head and I lose sight of the tree. More blood cascades onto the floorboard. I loose consciousness.
I wake up to the smell of PawPaw and open my eyes to see him sideways, like when I was under the gate. I sit upright. He’s asleep on a chair next to me. He reeks of body odor and chainsaw oil and cigarettes. He has thick grey stubble on his chin and cheeks. He wakes up and sees me and smiles. His smile was genuine, but his eye belies his fatigue. I say eye, not eyes, because that was the first time I noticed that PawPaw’s left eye was never bloodshot. I only noticed that day because the right eye was streaked red. White salt caked the creases in his leathery skin under his red eye, and it was slightly swollen and looked as if he were squinting with it but not the other.
Hey d’er, Lil’ Buddy, he says. ’Bout time you woke up. He pulls out his white handkerchief, noticeably dirty and stiff in places, sniffs, and wipes his nose.
I was in Our Lady of the Lake Hospital’s children’s ward with a shaved head and a turbine of bandages. The gate had scalped me, cutting a gouge along the back of my head and peeling a flap loose. I had passed out from blood loss and had a concussion. MawMaw showed up later that day, and PawPaw went home to get cleaned up. They alternated staying with me for a few days as doctors did tests and kept asking me questions, like what’s my name and who’s my favorite cartoon character; they must not have been too smart, because they kept forgetting my answers and would ask the same thing every time they checked on me.
When the nurses change bandage and use two mirrors to show me the big letter C on the back of my head, PawPaw says I have 82 stitches. (82 is obviously exaggerated number. Most people would put 1-2 stitches every centimeter or so, more for scalp wounds because they’re close to the skull bone and split easily, and I can still trace the eight-inch scar and feel the bumps from where the skin was bunched together, and I probably had 28-32 stitches, but PawPaw would repeat 82 a few more times; I don’t know where he got that number.) He says I’m the strongest and bravest kid in the hospital. I agree. I feel as strong as he told me I was, and I ask if we could go fishin’ the lady’s lake. He chuckles and says we’d go fishin’ in the pond as soon as I came home, or maybe even drive out to False River with the boat. I ask when. He says maybe in a couple of days, depending on what the doctors say.
I watched a lot of television while I waited. Our Lady of the Lake had a big expensive color television in the play room. My last day in the hospital was the Saturday morning after the gate fell on me, and Popeye and Friends was on. It was the first time I had seen it, and it was the version of later years, when Popeye looked after Olive Oil’s baby, Sweet Pea, and protected them from the bigger Bluto by eating spinach and getting stronger. I couldn’t help but notice that Popeye looked like Pawpaw, now that I saw PawPaw squint with one eye. And like PawPaw, Popeye smoked and mumbled when he talked, and laughed a lot. When the doctors asked my favorite cartoon character, I changed my answer and said Popeye.
I also watched Batman on the Superfriends show, the one where the friends would teach magic tricks at the end. That’s how I learned that Batman wasn’t really that strong, it was just a trick. He taught Robin and all of us watching how he could break a rolled up newspaper with his bare hands when Robin couldn’t. The secret was to have a glass of water nearby, and to somehow not have anyone notice that you dipped your fingers in it, and when you grasped the rolled up newspaper your fingers made it wet and weak. I felt disappointed in Batman. But, I was impressed by Aquaman, because he taught me a trick with newspaper that I still use today. He sat at a table and wrapped newspaper around the bottom of that empty glass of water – he probably drank it, since he was Aquaman – and turned the glass upside down to cover up a coin on the table. He said he’d make the coin disappear, but that was misdirection. When he moved the covered glass away, the coin was still there and all the Superfriends looked at the coin, not the glass in his hand, and he let the glass fall into his lap but held the the newspaper as if the glass were still there. It held the shape of the glass, so no one noticed, not even Superman with his x-ray vision. When Aquaman set the newspaper back on the coin, he raised his hand and smashed the paper onto the coin, making the glass disappear instead of the coin. Not even Wonder Woman and her lasso of truth could figure out that secret.4
Saturday morning cartoons had a lot of commercials, which weren’t interesting to me. I was shy around other kids and kept to myself, and pushed myself around the room during commercials on a wooden four wheel bicycle with handlebars like Brian’s motorcycle. I made motorcycle noises like Debbie had made when she read a book to me about a mouse and a motorcylce, and I imagined that like that my bike moved on its own when I made that noise, like it had for the mouse. Suddenly, a commercial caught my attention and I stopped making motorcycle noises. Maybe it was the color TV, or maybe it was the group of kids playing together with a toy, but suddenly I was was as mesmerized as I had been by the police cars flashing lights. The kids had Stretch Armstrong, blonde haired strongman that looked remarkably like Keith. The strongest of the kids could stretch Stretch Armstrong’s arms out, holding one arm in each and and heaving like it was an exercise band. The other kids were impressed. They all laughed together, stretching Stretch Armstrong between them. I wanted one.
I want a Stretch Armstrong, I tell PawPaw on the way home from Our Lady of the Lake Sunday morning. I say I want to get as strong as Keith, and that it takes hard work and exercise. What would happen if Keith weren’t there to lift the gate next time? I needed to be able to lift it myself.
We’ll see, Lil’ Buddy he says, chuckling like Popeye. He was clean shaven again, and smelled like Old Spice, Camels, and hair oil. I could smell a hint of chainsaw oil. Maybe it had always been there, but I hadn’t noticed. Maybe I was getting super powers now, and I could smell things I couldn’t before. After all, I was the bravest little man in Baton Rouge. I could be a super hero now, because I knew all the secrets. I just needed a Stretch Armstrong to help me along the way, then I’d show all those kids what I could do.
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- PawPaw lived off Hooper Road, not Foster Road. Hooper intersects near Plank a mile east of the Baton Rouge airport, about two miles north of Tony’s Seafood, and a few miles west of Glen Oaks High School. Foster Road is farther away and looked similar back then, but more developed and not as walkable. I probably remembered Hooper Road as Foster Road because people would say they were taking me to my foster parent’s house, and we sometimes took Foster Road to get there. ↩︎
- Wendy remembered the song as “Saturday in the Park,” by Chicago, and said that we used to sing the lyrics, “Saturday / in the park / I think it was the 4th of July.” I remember singing that with her, too, especially when we did it on the 4th of July, but never with Debbie. Debbie passed before I could ask her. Debbie adored Janis Joplin and always carried a blue bandana, similar to Janice’s red one, so maybe my mind links the song to being with Debbie and Wendy linked being in a park with Chicago. According to Wikipedia, Me and Bobby McGee was released in 1971, a few months after Janis’s 1970 death, and Saturday in the Park was released in 1972. Both songs were popular on the radio in 1976, and Me and Bobby McGee still is. It was probably played more often in Baton Rouge than Saturday in the Park because of the lyrics about Janis passing through Baton Rouge, which may be another reason it sticks in my mind so strongly when I think of listening to the radio in Wendy’s Datsun throughout the 70’s. ↩︎
- It wasn’t Keith, but I wouldn’t learn that until after Big Daddy’s funeral in 1990. In 1976, I knew Keith and he was a humongous 17 year old who could have easily heaved that heavy metal gate off me, but he would later tell me he never helped PawPaw burn wood and trash. The only time Keith came over was with my dad when they picked me up for weekend visits. PawPaw had a lot of side gigs, and one of them was training newly released prisoners to be tree surgeons, what most people today call tree arborists, landscapers, or gardeners. Most were African American, so the big, blue-eyed, blonde-haired white one that day must have stood out and looked enough like Keith and Big Daddy that my mind’s eye sees Keith cradling me in his arm to this day, even though I now know it wasn’t him. Interestingly, even though I know it wasn’t Keith who pulled the gate off me, I see him vividly in my mind’s eye of that day; albeit not as a 17 year old, but as a grown man and how he looked when we talked about my scar in 1990. ↩︎
- Superman and Wonder Woman didn’t see Aquaman perform that trick. He sat at the table by himself, which is verifiable in internet archives of the cartoons. I see the episode that way in my mind today, yet I remember thinking about Superman and Wonder Woman watching him perform. I probably watched so many cartoons in the hospital that I imagined them as real people, and that Superman was strong enough to tear Batman’s rolled up newspaper without needing a glass of water, and could have seen through Aquaman’s newspaper. Of course he would have noticed there was no glass, no matter how good Aquaman was at misdirection. As for Wonder Woman’s lasso, it made sense to me that if you really wanted to know a secret, just ask Wonder Woman to use her magic rope, which is probably why Aquaman never performed around her. Of course, Aquaman would have already known Batman’s secret about water weakening newspaper, because he was Aquaman. ↩︎