Baton Rouge, Autumn of 1976

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Ephesians 6:1-4

One Saturday afternoon, I leave the living room in the break between Batman and The Lone Ranger and walk into the kitchen out of habit. Linda is standing in front of the stove, adding milk to the pot of mac and soon-to-be cheese. She pours in the packet of orange powder and stirs with a wooden spoon, and we both hear PawPaw call out from the bathroom. She sets the wooden spoon down, picks up PawPaw’s pack of Camels from the crowded kitchen table, lights one, takes a drag, and hands it to me. I hold it upright, pinched between my right thumb and forefinger, just over the little camel. My other fingers are stuck out, making my hand look like a sideways okay sign. I monitor at the smoldering tip and walk across the kitchen towards the bathroom as carefully as a juggler balancing a plate spinning atop a stick.

I stop in front of the hallway mirror and peer my hair. The bandage had been off for a couple of weeks, and my hair has grown back to a fuzzy ball that makes my head look like a maroon colored chia pet. I drag my free hand across the top. It’s soft, like the chia pet at Debbie’s house. My hair pops back up after I flatten it, like tall grass when PawPaw and I are walking to the convenience store, and I wave my hand back and forth across my chia pet head of grass just to feel the tickle and watch each blade of hair bend down then and return upright. I stand still and stare at the kid staring back at me with a cigarette in his hand.

I’m a handsome kid, I think to myself, like MawMaw and Debbie say I am. I’m almost a grownup, Linda said. I look just like my dad. I’d heard Debbie’s friends at Brian the drug dealer’s house say he’s a handsome guy and I look just like him, so it’s unanimous. I face the mirror and straighten my shoulders and stick my chest out. I look grown up holding a cigarette, especially now with a big scar on my head like the gasoline fire scar on my dad’s leg. I try to rotate my head and see my scar, but I can’t twist that far.

I return to my grown-up pose, and without a thought attached to the urge I rotate my wrist and take a drag from the smoldering Camel. I’m instantly coughing and hacking and almost drop the cigarette onto the pot-marked linoleum with years of cigarette burns from before my time. I pinch tightly – but not too tightly – and try to cough quietly.

D’at you, Lil’ Buddy? PawPaw calls out. His voice is all-knowing, mischievous, and playful. There’s no fooling PawPaw.

I’m coughing and can’t answer. I turn around, stifling the sounds. The bathroom door is mostly shut, and I push it open with my free hand and see PawPaw was sitting on the porcelain throne, waiting for a poop. His coffee cup is on the sink by his hair tonic. Usually, a few cups of coffee help him poop, but he had been feeling ill and the poops weren’t coming. His usual perky face is ashen and looks tired. I hold out the cigarette for him, and he reaches for it and chuckles and reminds me that cigarettes are only for grown ups. He smokes his cigarette and I walk back to the kitchen, wanting some milk to wash away the scratch feeling across the top of my mouth. Linda says something about me learning a lesson, pours milk, and goes back to her and Craig’s bedroom. MawMaw comes out and chases me and gives me some shugga’ and a plate of cookies and refills my milk. She scoots me over to the kitchen table to play with my train while I eat, and she takes her turn stirring the mac and cheese. I put on my Lone Ranger cowboy hat and move my trains around for a while, making little train noises like the mouse with a motorcycle made to move his motorcycle; in my mind, I’m a little conductor and the train is moving to the beat of my rumble, a fast paced choo-choo-choo-choo closer to a car’s put-put than a truck’s roar, but it does the job and the train moves.

I hear a rumbling truck and the sound of gravel crunching. MawMaw steps away from the stove and turns to the carport door. She parts the drapes blocking the small window on the top half, and frowns.

Hmmph! She mutters. Jason, stay there, she says. Ed, she says in her loud and serious voice, you better come in here.

She steps towards me on the far side of the cluttered kitchen table and wraps an arm around my shoulders. A couple of knocks pound on the door and it buckles inward with each rap, and the window panes rattle like when a jet airplane passes over.

PawPaw comes out, glances through the window, opens the door and immediately says: It ain’t your day, Ed.

My dad’s unmistakable voice booms: I don’t care what day it is! His voice can move your chest like the rumble of PawPaw’s truck, and though it’s unlikely to have happened, I can still hear the kitchen window rattle in my mind’s ear.

PawPaw says in his serious voice: Ed, please. Next week. You know d’ rules.

Goddamnit, he’s my son! My dad booms. I’ll see him whenever I want!

He pokes his head inside from a spot by the window above PawPaw’s head and gets eye contact with me. He sticks arm arm through the gap, nudging PawPaw out of the way. He’s holding one of the fancy paper bags with a rope handle from Cortana Mall. He says in a softer voice, Hey Justin – goddamnit, I mean Jason – I brought you something. Do you want it?

PawPaw sees me looking at my dad with anticipation, and he steps aside without saying anything. MawMaw lifts her arm and I rush to my dad. He steps inside between PawPaw and me and kneels down and looks at the bag and smiles sheepishly and says, I think this is what you wanted.

I peer in the bag, and it’s a Stretch Armstrong! I exclaim something and pull the unopened box out of the fancy bag. I see the green face and pointed ears and bald head, and instantly tell him it’s not Stretch. Stretch looks like Keith, with white skin and blonde hair and big muscles. This one’s Evil Stretch, the green villain with ears like Keebler elves. Even though he’s evil, I know he still stretches, so I’m happy and I fumble with the box, trying to open it. My dad says we can go to the mall next week and I can pick out what I want. I’m stoked! That means I’d have Stretch and Evil Stretch! He asks if I’d like that, and I exclaim yeah!

Okay Ed, PawPaw says. Thank you for d’ gift, he says, But you know d’ rules. You got to go.

My dad stands up and towers over us and booms, Fuck the rules! He tells PawPaw that he’s my father and can see me whenever he wants.

Please, Ed, PawPaw says. Next week.

MawMaw moves to his side. I keep fumbling with the box. Shouting doesn’t bother me: calm at the helm of a ship, PawPaw would sometimes say of me. During the last hurricane, when I was scared of the wind ripping off shingles and blowing over trees, he sat with me and reminded me of how calm I could be in a storm, just like Popeye. But despite PawPaw’s belief in me, I grow frustrated by not being able to open my box. I focus on trying to stay calm rather than the shouting, though I can’t help but hear what they say and see them moving in my peripheral vision.

My dad steps towards PawPaw and pokes his finger down and says, Look here, Ed. He’s my son. I don’t care what the fuck Judge Pugh said. He’s dead now. Fuckin’ idiot shoulda never did what he did. Justin’s my son, and I’ll see him whenever the fuck I want! He pokes his finger to emphasize the point.

PawPaw stays calm and says no, and that makes my dad angrier. He pokes his finger into PawPaw’s chest so hard that PawPaw stumbles backwards, catching himself against the counter. He straightens himself and says: Ed, you got to go. No one wants to call the police.

MawMaw moves by my side and puts her arm around me again. I’m focused on that goddamn box and about to loose my fucking cool. I wish I had a knife to open it.

My dad booms some explicatives that I don’t recall, and Linda and Craig walk into the kitchen and stand between MawMaw and PawPaw. Craig’s almost as tall as my dad, but he’s so thin and tepid that he seems smaller than PawPaw when they both stand by my dad, like how a tall blade of grass seems smaller than a short but stout and prickly thistle. Linda tells my dad to leave. My dad inflates his chest and stands tall. Craig stares at my dad with his stoned and sluggish eyes but says nothing. My dad brushes him aside like a blade of grass, then reaches down and grabs my right arm. I’m still cradling the box with Evil Stretch tightly, so when he yanks me towards him my arm is rigid and I begin to move with it. But MawMaw clings to my other arm, and I’m yanked back. I cling to my new toy, and we’re both lifted in the air between MawMaw and my dad.

My dad’s hand is clutched stronger than a vice on my upper right arm, and MawMaw’s two hands are wrapped around my left wrist. I’m stretched between them like two kids stretching Stretch Armstrong on TV. Linda lurches to MawMaw’s side and grasps my forearm. I feel a stab of pain, and I break my calm and cry out. Everyone except Craig is shouting something; he looks dazed and confused, everyone else looks angry. PawPaw steps towards my dad, and my dad shoves PawPaw with his free hand. PawPaw flies backwards, and Linda lets go of my arm and leaps onto my dad. My dad shoves her away, and PawPaw lurches between Linda and my dad, and says in the loudest voice I would ever hear him use, and he tells my dad to stop or he’ll call the police again. My dad shouts something so loud that my chests rumbles and pilots in airplanes flying overhead probably hear him, and that must have woken up the baby. Her shrill cry echoes through the kitchen and drowns out even my dad’s shouts. Linda rushes towards the bedroom, and Craig strolls after her. The baby’s crying loudly, and the kitchen is quiet except for her voice and my sobbing. PawPaw takes my arm from MawMaw and holds my hand and stands by my side. My dad lets go. We stand there for a few moments. The baby stops crying.

Let me say goodbye to him outside, my dad says.

Five minutes, PawPaw says. Stay in d’ carport.

I hold up my left arm and tell all of them that it’s bleeding. MawMaw says someone’s fingernails must have scratched it. She says she’ll get a Band-Aid and bring it out to me. My dad reaches down and I take his hand and stifle my sniffles; no one likes hearing a baby cry. We step into the carport and my dad picks me up and sets me down on the hood of MawMaw’s car. PawPaw closes the door but keeps it cracked with a peeking-sized gap. The crickets are chirping, unfazed by the commotion. Calm in the storm. I still have the box with Evil Stretch. My dad kneels down and his eyes are just barely below my nose. His long straight black hair is matted. He smells like swamp and pot. He looks up at me with our dark brown eyes and smiles.

You know I love you, son? Right?


Do you love me?


His smile widens and his eyes soften. He whips out his big Buck folding knife with the locking blade, and effortlessly slices open the box and pulls out Evil Stretch. I pull him out and instantly try to stretch him. I can’t. My dad takes him and stretches him farther than I had been stretched a few moments before, and says that one day I’ll be big and strong, just like him.

MawMaw steps out with a Band-Aid and we fret over getting it just right. I like wearing bandages, because people see them and tell me how brave I am. I was an expert on bandages by then, and I knew which angles stayed on the best. We get it just right. MawMaw says I’m brave or strong or calm or something like that, and I beam. She walks back inside and leaves the door open a bit wider; I can see the kitchen counter now. I hear her and PawPaw talking, but can’t make out the words. My dad tells me next week we’ll go to the mall and get whatever I want. I say something about Stretch Armstrong and ice cream and the horse merry-go-round, and he says of course, I’m his son, and he loves me.

MawMaw comes out with a plate of cookies and tells my dad he can take one to go. PawPaw is standing in the doorway, a few inches taller because of the step up, but still tiny compared to my dad. My dad takes a cookie and asks if he can show me his dog in the truck. PawPaw says yes, and he and MawMaw wait by the door and I take my dad’s hand and carry Evil Stretch to his truck. He opens the passenger door and a big red dog the color of ketchup leaps out and wiggles and runs around us. He tells her to sit and tells me her name is Anne. She’s an Irish Setter. She’s our dog now. She’s sitting and her nose is at my face, and she licks me and I fall in love. He says he has to go, but says I can play with Anne when he picks me up next week. I think that sounds like the best day ever. He lifts her into his truck, hugs me goodbye, and tells me he loves me. I say I love him, too. I run back to MawMaw and the plate of cookies, wave goodbye, and we step inside.

Later that evening, after mac and cheese and fish sticks from the freezer with lots of ketchup piled on, I sit at the table and try to stretch Evil Stretch. I can’t, no matter how many times I try. I grow irritated, frustrated, or some other word I don’t know yet. I point my finger at his face and tell him I’m bigger and stronger than he is. He says nothing; that makes me feel more irritated. What good is a Stretch if it doesn’t stretch? It’s his fault, I tell him. He remains silent, goading me with his pointy ears and evil stare. I pick up one of PawPaw’s flathead screwdrivers. It’s as big in my hand as Big Daddy’s knife is in his, bigger looking than my dad’s folding Buck, if only apparently so because of scale in my hand.

I put it to Evil Stretch’s rib cage, rotating my wrist so the flathead is sideways, so that I can pierce between rib bones and not bounce off like an amateur who doesn’t know any better; I don’t know how I know that, and it’s not the exact words in my mind, but I recall rotating my wrist and I think I had overheard something about the ribs protecting the heart and lungs. I knew I should aim for either, like shooting a deer or elk in that area so they either die instantly or soon bleed to death. I knew a thing or two about almost bleeding to death, I thought, and I was bigger and stronger than Evil Stretch and would make him bleed to death. I thrust the screwdriver into his side, right where the soldier’s spear pierced Jesus, and the rubber resisted and I had to lean in and push harder. His skin gave away and the screwdriver slid deep and I relaxed, satisfied, happy to be the stronger one of us. I pulled out the screwdriver and Evil Stretch’s wound dripped a snot-colored milky goo that clung to the tip of the screwdriver without forming drops. I was mesmerized, having forgotten that I intended him to bleed and curious what the bloody goo was. I squeeze, and Evil Stretch’s wound pours goo. It drips down his side, and a few drops spill on the table by my train set. I feel differently, no longer irritated or frustrated, but scared or worried that I had broken my toy. I was back to reality, and my new toy was leaking. I had to save it. I set the screwdriver back down and tried to push the goo back in, like the doctors had done to my brain and blood, but the more I tried to force the goo into the gash with my right hand, the more my left hand squeezed and the more came out. I wasn’t thinking like I had with the cigarette. I become more and more agitated, rushing to push goo back in but squeezing more and more out. Despite not wanting to sound like a baby, I begin to cry.

I hear PawPaw behind me say, What wrong, Lil’ Buddy?

Between sniffles, I tell him that I stabbed Evil Stretch, and now he’s bleeding to death.

PawPaw picks up Evil and inspects his wound. He tells me we’ll be like doctors. Before we put the blood back in, we have to get him to stop bleeding. PawPaw cradles him gently. I see my finger dents in his body, because he’s unable to rebound like he had only minutes before. PawPaw wipes off the goo and applies superglue to the cut, but the glue doesn’t hold. PawPaw’s hand carefully holds Evil horizontally, without squeezing him, and we step over to the refrigerator and PawPaw opens the top freezer, moves things around, and rests Stretch on a flat spot. He says something about the cold making the goo flow less. He shuts the door and we chat about things I don’t recall while he smokes a Camel. I’m so upset I don’t want any cookies, and after a second cigarette we finally open the freezer. PawPaw was right, the goo wasn’t flowing any more. We try super glue again, but it fails again. We try to make a bandage out of duct tape, but it won’t stick, either. I’m distraught, but PawPaw says something about waiting and seeing, and we put Stretch back in the freezer and plan to check on him in the morning.

Super glue and duct tape didn’t work the next morning, and PawPaw says it’s time to say goodbye. We take him to the trash can by the cricket cage and PawPaw pushes a box over for me to stand on. I hold Evil Stretch on my open palms, like PawPaw had, and say a few words. I say I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt him. I say he wasn’t really evil, that I just called him that. I look at PawPaw and he nods, then I drop Stretch into the trash and step down. PawPaw tells me I’m the nicest Lil’ Buddy in the world, and we go back inside.

For some reason, my dad missed the next visit, and the next time I see him I have long hair. Not as long as his, of course. His lays below his shoulders. Mine is long enough to lay down on its own and hide the scar and cover my forehead. I have curly red hair, like Anne’s, my dad says. She wiggles and licks my face from her seat in the back of his new car. He starts it and it roars like a truck, not like any car I’ve ever seen. The engine was so loud that I thought it was a truck when I heard it pull up. It has soft leather seats – not vinyl like all the trucks I knew – and smells like Anne, pot, swamp, and that unmistakable new car smell. He puts the stickshift into gear, looks over his shoulder, and pulls out so quickly that rocks fly forward. I keep letting Anne lick my face. I think about Evil Stretch, but don’t say anything. It had been so long that I hadn’t thought about him, and my dad doesn’t ask.

We zip to the intersection at Plank Road and whip right. My dad’s talking about the car, how fast it is and much women like it. He says things about the engine I don’t recall. He says women like me, too, and with me and that car he’ll get lots of ass. We pass the airport. A few licks of Anne’s tongue later we stop at a stop sign.

Look, son, my dad says, pointing past my face and out my window.

I look. I don’t see anything. It looks just like the neighborhoods where Wendy and Debbie and I deliver Yellow Pages. Too tight together, and no fishing ponds. I don’t know what to say. He seems to get irritated.

See that tree, Justin – I mean Jason?

I don’t know which one he’s talking about. He grows impatient and holds my head and points my face at one. I finally see it. There are lots of trees along the street, but one stately oak tree stands out. It’s not nearly as big as mine by the convenience store, but it’s shaped similarly, a nearly perfect dome of leaves and branches and moss. It’s so big it hides the tiny house behind it.

Joyce lives there, he says. That’s where I met Wendy, he says seriously, so I’ll remember. He chuckles and says, Boy, she was fine! She had the finest ass in town. Anne whimpers as if she agrees or is jealous, and I rub her ears. They’re softer than my chia pet hair had been, and feel more like my hair now. I pet her and remain quiet while my dad wistfully stares the tree in front of the house where he met Wendy, perhaps recalling the finest ass in town.

We rumble forward to the next stop sign and take a left. Less than a joint toke later we pull into the paved driveway of a house with a car in the carport and a couple of cars parked on the street in front. My dad tells Anne to stay, and we walk past the car and he pounds on the door. Grandma Foster opens it, and beams. Her smile widens, and her blue eyes squint and her crows feet crinkle. She looks up at my dad and then down a bit at me. She seems to wiggle like Anne and has the same look of excitement in her eyes, focused on me and inviting me to rub her head or scratch her ears.

Grandma looks over her shoulder and says, Ed! Look who’s here! It’s Edward. And he brought Jason!

She looks back at us and beckons us in and tells us that Mildred and Doug and Sarah are there too. We step through the carport door into her not very clean kitchen.

Her house smells the same: something burnt on the stove that keeps getting reheated, and an old ladies who rarely leaves home. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s uniquely and unequivocally Grandma Foster’s house. She’s wearing a faded sundress with pastel flowers all over it, and fuzzy house slippers like MawMaw’s but dirtier. She’s smiling and wiggling like Anne. My dad leans over to hug her, and then she opens her arms and I step into them for my hug. She’s smaller than Wendy or Debbie, and I fit right in.

Big Daddy stands up from beside the dining table and blocks out the sunlight from Grandma’s sliding glass door. He steps over and kneels down. His hair is wavy, like mine, but it’s mostly grey. He has streaks of blonde and dark red, like mine and Anne’s. But what stands out is how he takes up the entire dining room, blocking out the light from Granda’s double glass doors and even blocking out the table and the dish cabinet and bookshelf behind it. I know Mildred and Doug and his wife are there, behind him in the dining room, but I can’t see them because he’s so big that he dominates my field of vision. I only see his smiling face, everything behind him is invisible or so dwarfed by Big Daddy that it’s practically gone. Anyone who was there has vanished, and the bookshelf is a speck on the horizon, indistinguishable from the cabinet it rests upon. In my peripherial vision, my dad shrinks down to Grandma’s size, and the room fills with Big Daddy’s face and the sound of his voice. It’s voice is soft and smooth and calming, but I still feel cold and stand frozen. I can’t move. I try, but I didn’t know what to move or what to do, so my trying is more like the tension of coiling an unseen spring than visible motion. This is what Jack must have felt like when he first saw the giant.1

Big Daddy says he has something for me, and he moves towards the door, and that’s when we can all move out of his way. We follow him to his big car parked in front of my dad’s. Big Daddy says he was waiting to see me again to give it to me. He opens the trunk and pulls out a fancy fishing rod, one of the ones with a reel. He says we could go fishing in False River or Grand Isle. I say something I don’t recall, but it made him smile and pat me on the head. He stands upright and blocks out Grandma’s house.

He asks my dad something; I think it was about his car, but they also say something about the truck. I’m uninvolved, happy about the fishing rod and figuring out how to open the reel and pull out the line. My dad says something back with a quick tempo. Big Daddy says something, still smiling and still using that soft voice. My dad’s voice raises and he uses his serious tone. I struggle threading the fine line through the small hole in the reel. My dad points at me and keeps talking. Big Daddy talks again in that soothing voice. I keep fumbling with the reel. My dad says something loudly that uses the word bullshit, and I look up to see him pointing up and into Big Daddy’s smiling face. Big Daddy says something softly, and my dad says bullshit again and points at the car and then back at Big Daddy’s face. My dad starts talking so loudly that he’s practically shouting, and he’s pointing down at me and up at Big Daddy’s face.

Big Daddy stops smiling, and effortlessly reaches forward and grabs my dad’s long hair as if making a pony tail of it, then flings him around and towards the ground as easily as Kieth tossing branches onto a fire. My dad crumbles to his butt and stares at the sky, shouting and cursing more loudly and with explicatives I don’t recall. As smoothly as a magician producing a dove from a hidden pocket in his coat, Big Daddy slides his big Bowie elk-hunting knife from his right side sheath and holds it to my dad’s face, and in his soft he call’s my dad son, and tells him to be quiet. My dad obliges: I had never seen that before.

I’m still trying to figure out the fishing reel. I hear Anne whimpering from inside the car. My dad’s still on the ground and quiet. Big Daddy’s smiling again. He lets go of my dad’s hair and stands up and returns his knife as deftly as he had produced it. My dad’s staring up from his reclined seat on the ground and breathing hard. His eyebrows are furrowed and his dark brown eyes are narrowed so tightly that I can’t see any white. Big Daddy looks at me and reaches over and shows me how to open the reel and pull out some string and tells me how in his soothing southern drawl. Anne stops whimpering; his voice is that calming. Big Daddy and I chat about fishing a bit, but I can’t recall the details. My dad is standing now and says we have to go. We get in the car without saying goodbye to Grandma, and it roars to life. I turn around and Anne licks my face and I tell her about my new fishing rod. We zip backwards and he whips around, and I see Grandma standing beside Big Daddy; she barely reaches his rib cage. We speed away and retrace our route, except my dad doesn’t point out Wendy’s tree.

He doesn’t talk on the way to PawPaw’s, and when he drops me off he doesn’t wait around. I rush towards MawMaw’s confused face and open arms, carrying my fishing rod. She doesn’t give me shugga’, but I turn around, anyway, and wave goodbye. My dad’s already peeling out and driving away. MawMaw doesn’t ask any questions other than if I want a cookie. I say no – surprisingly – and get to work learning my new fishing rod.

PawPaw comes home from his gig at Glen Oaks. He smells like cigarettes and that harsh chemical smell that’s not Pine Sol but something similar. MawMaw tells him I’m home early and have a new fishing rod. He chuckles and says we’ll go fishing. He changes from his custodian clothes and shoes into his fishing clothes and shoes, packs a mesh tube with crickets, and hoists his small tan tackle box. He grabs two cane poles and I carry my fancy rod and reel. We pass where the gate used to be and sit on a log beside the pond. I open the real like Big Daddy showed me, and thread the eyelets all by myself. I take a fishhook from PawPaw’s tackle box and try to tie it, but fail. I try again and fail again. I feel myself growing irritated and frustrated. PawPaw chuckles and shows me again: hold the line gently, not too loose and not too tight, near the end. Thread the eye of the hook. When it’s through enough, pinch it so it doesn’t fall out. Reach over and pull a bit forward, and twist it around the main line a few more times than you think you need, then poke the end through the little hole formed under the twists. Pull gently until on the main line until the clinch knot tightens. Burn the hangnail of line off with your cigarette so it doesn’t get caught in weeds.

PawPaw shows me how to cast with the fancy rod. I’m pretty good at it, but the pond is so small that most casts go clear across to the other side, which defeated the purpose. If I had wanted to fish there, I would have just walked there. And, I keep flinging off my cricket, sometimes not noticing until I get bored without a bite and reel in and see the empty hook. I grow tired of the rod, and I ask for one of PawPaw’s cane rods. He chuckles that Popeye chuckle and says sure, and asks if I want to tie the hook. I say yes, and I’m happy when I tie it all by myself. PawPaw burns off the loose end, pulls out his needle nose pliers and crimps a small lead weight about six inches above the hook, and clips a red and white popper about two feet above the weight. I shake the cricket tube until one slides down the little hole, and I hook it under the collar, like PawPaw had shown me long ago, so that it’s alive and kicking under water. I raise the pole and swing the popper forward. It lands softly, and ripples quickly dissipate. Almost immediately, the popper begins shimmying and new ripples form. I watch and wait. The popper is upright, pulled down ever so slightly, and slowly skating around in a random pattern. It disappears under water, and I raise the pole with not to much force but not softly, either, and the tip of the pole bends over and the line moves back and forth frantically, and I pull up at just the right pace and land a brim a bit bigger than PawPaw’s hand. It had swallowed the hook and it was poking out of its gills, and PawPaw shows me how to use needlenose pliers to reach in and push the hook back and then take it out slowly. The brim’s gills open and close, and it’s bleeding a bit, but it’s alive. PawPaw leans over and sets it upright in the water, and moves it back and forth a few times to get water flowing through its gills. It swims off. He wipes his hands on his handkerchief and I hook another cricket, and we catch and release a few more brim before heading back.

In the carport, I lean Big Daddy’s fancy fishing rod next to the cane poles that rest behind the trash can, and we go inside and I wash my hands and tell MawMaw all about all the fish we caught. She’s impressed, and back to normal compared to when I arrived earlier that day and she was quiet. I have to wipe off several rounds of red shugga’ stains. We have mac and cheese and fish sticks with ketchup for dinner, and then we all sit around the small black and white TV until it’s my bedtime. PawPaw’s already asleep; he has to wake up early in the morning. Craig and Linda go to their bedroom. MawMaw makes the couch and kisses me goodnight. It had been an unremarkable day. Nothing blew up, I wasn’t in the hospital, and I caught some fish. I sleep peacefully.

That summer, my hair grows long and I see my dad more than ever before. He doesn’t take me to Grandma’s very often, but sometimes he picks up Kieth and me and takes us hunting or fishing, and sometimes I stay overnight with him in one of Big Daddy’s houses by the Comite River and a walking distance to a big patch of dry land and densely packet forest in the Acafalaya Bason. We spend weekends hunting and gardening at nighttime, crawling through swamp water so deep I ride on my dad’s shoulders and carry the shotgun out of the water. I wear the headlamp and he carries the big square battery connected to its wires, but we only turn on the lamp after gardening, and he has to carry both the shotgun and the headlamp when we crawl through the hurricane-sized culvert under a blacktop road. He carries them both in one hand held above the water line, and uses his other hand to crawl forward; it’s the only time being small is an advantage, because I can wade through the water and barely scrape my head. On the other side, I learn to navigate by the stars and only by the light of the moon, and how to never take the same path twice. I learn to tell the difference between male and female pot plants, and how to use a machete to chop down the males. Back closer to home, we wade out of the water and through the fields leading to Big Daddy’s house, and I sit atop my dad’s shoulder’s and turn on the headlamp, and he carries the shotgun and shoots rabbits that I trap in the spotlight. During the daytime, we shoot at empty beer cans and bottles in the field. My dad bought me a .22 bolt action single shot rifle, and I become such a good shot that I can hit a rabbit hiding behind a bush or a squirrel peering over a branch. And though I cried the first time I shot his shotgun, and my shoulder bruise lasted almost two weeks and my dad told me to stop being a baby about it, I kept wanting to get as good as my dad with it, so he bought some duck-shot shells for me to practice. But it wasn’t the same. The sound of a shotgun with buckshot compared to my .22 was like PawPaw’s truck compared to the Datsun, and the duck-shot was only marginally more of a shake in my bones than the .22. My dad beamed every time I asked him to teach me to shoot like him, and told me how much he loved me and how great of a hunter I had become, even though I had missed the one deer he let me try to shoot; that seemed to only make him feel better, because he never missed and I wanted to be like him.

Towards the end of summer, when I could use a haircut, my dad takes me to Mamma Jean’s house on False River; it’s not really her house, it’s Aunt Reece’s, but we call it Mamma Jean’s house because that’s where the family gathers when she’s in town from Houston. She has a barber saloon set up in the garage, and that’s where Tiffany and I get our hair cut. She’s my cousin, ten months older than I am, and we have the same eyes as my dad and her mom, Janice: Mamma Jean’s dark brown eyes. Janice is there, and standing together there’s no doubt we’re all related. Cynthia and Theresa are there, too, but they have blue eyes and look like Kieth, Big Daddy, and Doug: Grandma Foster’s eyes. Aunts Reece, Mildred, and Wanda are there. They’re Mamma Jean’s aunts, as old as Grandma Foster and with full heads of grey hair and smelled like old ladies (I think at least one of them had urinary stress incontenance and used that pungent spray to camouflage the smell of uric acid; it may have been Aunt Reece, who had been in a wheelchair as long as I could recall and had probably lost tension in her urinary sphincter.) Mamma Jean has firey red hair done like MawMaw’s, but without a hint of hairspray smell. I’m unsure if she has subtle makeup because I can’t smell it, either, and she may just have rosy cheeks and smooth light-red lips. Her perfectly pleated blouse clings to her body, and she looks as fit and athletic as her daughters. Like Big Daddy, Mamma Jean dominates the room. When she tells my dad that Anne has to wait outside, not even he argues.

Look at that hair, she says. She squats down and runs her fingers through my hair.

We’ll cut it after supper, she says. I say okay, and Tiffany grabs my hand and pulls me off to play while my dad stays and talks with his sisters.

Tiffany had already been in school, and was beginning the first grade. She said her school assigned projects over the summer, and she had brought them to Aunt Reece’s to work on while they stayed there. Her and Janice’s room had a small bookshelf with her school books, and she had a corner set up with an art easel and box of crayons, a big one with 64 colors and a sharpener built into the back. Her teachers made the project together to give kids something to do over summer, to teach about using books to learn and to teach others, and Tiffany was tasked with teaching first graders about crocodiles. She was supposed to draw some in their natural habitat. The picture in her book of a crocodile looks just like an alligator, and I tell her so. I say I’ve seen so many aligators when hunting and – I pause and think of the word – gardening with my dad, that I know what an alligator looks like. I even tell her I had practically had my arm bitten off by one when I was wading through the swamp. She doesn’t doubt me, and tells me that the book says crocodiles are like alligators but different. They live in Florida and Australia (wherever that is), and she already knows everything about both of them. She flips through pages of her book and shows me a photograph of an alligator. I’m impressed. She knows her stuff. But I double-down on my tale about almost having my arm bitten off, and say I could draw what they look like. We sit down and Tiffany hands me a sketch pad and I try. It’s harder than it looks, and Tiffany takes a turn. I tell her no, that’s not right, that in real life they sit mostly under water and look like a log; you can only see their eyes. That’s not right, she says, and points to the crocodile’s snout in her book. We bicker, and Janice walks in.

What are you two arguing about? she says in a surprisingly harsh tone, as if she walked in already upset about something. We tell her. She calms down and squats between us and looks at our attempts and the book.

Well there, she says. That’s the difference. See? Crocodiles have a bigger nose than alligators and it sticks out of the water. Y’all can show the difference. It’ll teach the other kids without y’all having to argue.

Janice stands up and tells us to play nicely, and we get back to drawing two drawings, one for a Louisiana alligator and one for an Australian crocodile. I’d like to say I did a fine job, but drawing was harder than it looked. I kept going back to Tiffany’s book and trying to mimic it, but nothing I did looked right. I decided I wanted books and drawing pads so I could practice and get ready for when I started school.

Janice comes back and tells us supper is ready. The dining room table is remarkably clean, with only plates and piles of food on it, and we actually sit at the table to eat. Either Aunt Mildred or Wanda – I never could tell them apart – places a Yellow Pages book on my seat so I can be at table-level. Tiffany is taller than I am and doesn’t need one. Aunt Mildred-Wanda pushes Aunt Reece up to the table, and everyone is talking about how good the food smells and looks. I agree, but I can’t figure out why they’re waiting to eat. My dad must be just as confused, because he reaches over and grabs a few filets of fried catfish and drops them on his plate.

Edward! Mamma Jean says. Wait until we say grace.

He grumbles something and licks his fingers, but doesn’t touch the catfish. Everyone holds hands. I’m between my dad and Tiffany, and I look to her to see what to do. She takes my hand and lowers her head and I do the same. My dad keeps looking around with a scowl on his face, but he takes my hand and remains uncharacteristically silent.

Mamma Jean asks either Cynthia or Theresa to say grace – I confuse them, just like Wanda and Mildred – and one of them recites the Lord’s Prayer, and thanks Jesus for the catfish and for family and for Edward bringing me there. She asked for Aunt Reece to feel better, and for a few other things that I can’t recall, probably because I was distracted from hunger after having waited with my head down for what seemed like hours. She finishes, and everyone except my dad says amen – I mumble it quickly after I see Tiffany saying amen. Finally, we can begin eating. I follow my dad’s lead and dump catsup on the catfish and tear into my meal.

Jason, Mamma Jean said in her voice. She only had one voice. It was neither serious nor angry nor funny, it was simply the voice you listened to. She said: We don’t put our face into our plate here. A gentleman sits upright and brings his fork to his mouth.

I glance at my dad, who’s bent over his plate with breading crumbs in his scraggly beard, holding a filet in one hand and licking catsup off the fingers of his other. Tiffany is eating daintily and seems oblivious to what’s going on. I glance back at Mamma Jean. She’s staring at me with those dark brown eyes that seem more ominous on her than when I see them in a mirror, and I can’t help myself: I do what she says. She had that type of tone. I balance a piece of catfish as carefully as carrying PawPaw’s lit Camel cigarette, and somehow bring the bite all the way up to my mouth without it falling off. I resist the urge to lean my head forward in the final few milimeters between the tines and my lips, and I slide the bite into my mouth and chew slowly, like Tiffany. Mamma Jean seems satisfied and resumes eating. She laughs with her aunts and daughters, and no one seems to have noticed the drama that had just unfolded. I keep eating like a gentlemen, and though I don’t say anything, I think my dad had the better method, because he was already through at least three filets and I was barely through half of my first.

Supper took forever, but we were rewarded at the end by a massive tray of Mamma Jean’s famous banana pudding with little round brown vanilla wafers meticulously poked part in around the edges. When you ate them, one half was crunchy and tasted like most cookies, but the other half was soft and squishy and tasted like vanilla and bananas and was a piece of heaven in every bite. It took all my will power to slow down and balance each bite on my spoon to reach my mouth. Tiffany says she helped Mamma Jean mash the bananas and stir in the vanilla, and that Mamma Jean is the best cook in all of Houston. Everyone agrees. I do, too, and though I’m unsure where Houston is, I think they’re lucky to have Mamma Jean there. I get a second bowl and eat until I feel sluggish.

After dinner, I feed Anne some pieces of fish and walk back inside to the bathroom and ask my dad to lift me up so I could wash my hands. Mamma Jean said she’d cut my hair while everyone helps clean up, and we walk through the garage door and into her studio.

Mamma Jean had put a barber’s chair in Aunt Reece’s garage and added a curved edge to the shoe-mud sink to rest your neck while she washed your hair. I sat in the chair by the sink and leaned back. Mamma Jean wet my hair and washed it twice, using two types of shampoo that barely smelled at all, and massaged my scalp and rubbed my hair together without a single jerky motion and didn’t pause for even a second with her chatter about what it means to be a gentleman and to attend church. She finishes and I step into the barber chair, and she snaps an apron with an audible crack! and it floats over my chest like Superman’s cape worn backwards. She whips me around in the chair so I’m facing a wall mirror over her barber tools, and stands behind me and runs her fingers through my hair and surveys my head to plan her attack.

Hhmmph! She said, just like MawMaw, but in a way that made me sit up and alert to whatever had hhmmph’ed her. Her hands were parting the hair around my scar.

She hhmmphs again, and says: That Mr. White sure let you hurt yourself. And Mrs. White doesn’t keep your hair clean. Hhmmph. Well, we’ll do our best.

She produces a comb in one hand and scissors in the other as invisibly as Big Daddy produced his elk knife, and somehow, as if she had a third hand hidden in her blouse, she rotates my chair back and forth as the scissors go snip-snip-snip and her hands move with the deftness of Debbie rolling a joint. She’s chatting the entire time, and only pauses now and then to examine one of the smaller scars on my scalp.

I don’t remember this one, she says. She runs her fingers along the back right side of my head and says: And I don’t remember this dent. (It’s not a dent, it’s more like a raised wave, like mushing a ball of clay and the excess building up, but it feels like a dent at first. I had it for as long as I could remember.)

She’s standing behind me, but looks at me in the mirror, as if she’s her reflection and looking me in the eye from inside the mirror, and says: I wonder if Wendy dropped you. It’s the first rhetorical question I ever heard, and I didn’t know what to say so I remained silent. I don’t think anyone dropped me, I just had a lumpy head and PawPaw said that was from all the brains doctors kept adding to me.

Mamma Jean’s third arm whips me around to face her, and my stomach feels like it does on a merry go round. I giggle a bit, and she smiles and squats down to my eye level and says something I can’t recall, but it’s flattering or caring and Mamma Jean only speaks the truth, and I beam and we smile together for a moment. She brushes my bangs back and forth, and a snip-snip-snip later she whips me around again, and her reflection looks me in the eye and says: There. You’re a handsome young gentleman. I couldn’t agree more.

We go back inside and my dad refuses a haircut and gruffly says we’re going. We hug everyone goodbye, and Tiffany thanks me for helping with her project. We hop in the car with Anne, and it’s an entire joint-ride back to my dad’s house. All along the way, he keeps calling the women a bunch of cackling hens, and I laugh and say yeah!, and every time I say yeah! he rubs my head and then taps his fingers on the steering wheel to whatever was playing on the radio and stops complaining about the cackling hens for a few tokes. Anne rides with her head out the back window and her tongue out, lapping at things flying by that I can’t see, and I play superman with my hand held by the window. A day later, we pull into PawPaw’s and I hop out kick a bit of extra umph! into my feet to make the gravel crunch more loudly, grab my backpack full of dirty clothes, and get kisses from Anne. My dad’s already kneeling by the front of the car with his arms up and a broad smile poking through his scragly beard. I rush into his arms, kicking up pieces of gravel in the few steps it took.

I love you, son.

I love you, too, dad.

The door opens and we stand up, and I kick up more gravel rushing to MawMaw, who’s standing in the doorway and wearing fresh bright red lipstick – I can almost smell it before I enter the carport. She steps inside and I follow, and she shuts the door before kneeling down to give me shugga’. She rubs my hair and tells me how handsome I am, and we get busy baking cookies from that tube with the tree elves on it. I ask if we can make banana pudding, and she laughs and says she’ll pick up a box next time she’s at the grocery store.

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  1. Big Daddy wasn’t that big. He was around 6’2″ and maybe 230 pounds in the early 1970’s, physically fit with a look that southerns called a “big ol’ boy” that could “pack a wallop,” something the midwesterners or Texans may have called “corn fed,” like a bull brought in from pasture to bulk up on corn. Big Daddy’s shoulders were wide and his waist was narrow, and his massive fists did indeed look like they could pack a wallop. He wasn’t as young as he was in the 1964 Life magazine photos showcasing his physique in his boxing trunks and gloves, but he was still fit and intimidating. He didn’t have to try to look impressive, and the bull analogy is appropriate: there’s something about a bull standing still and staring at you calmly that strikes fear into your body, as if by instinct, even if you haven’t seen what a bulls horns can do to a man. And Big Daddy’s elk-gutting knife was about as big as the horn on a Texas Longhorn steer and appeared even more menacing than it was – if that was possible – when wielded in his massive hand.

    His size shows up in history, because, according to Walter Sheridan, head of the FBI’s Get Hoffa task force, the reason there’s no recorded evidence of Jimmy Hoffa asking Big Daddy to bribe a juror is that Big Daddy was so big and fit in his tailored suit that Walter couldn’t hide even the FBI’s most high-tech bugging device on him, so Walter sent him into Hoffa’s hotel room unbugged. Walter describes the meeting thoroughly in his 1972 opus, “The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa,” which cites Edward Grady Partin second only to Jimmy Hoffa and a couple of other Teamster leaders in the index. On page 225, he begins describing when he met Big Daddy for the first time in 1962. Bobby Kennedy had recently had Big Daddy released from jail under the condition of him finding “something” against Hoffa, and Big Daddy had arranged a meeting in Hoffa’s hotel room in Nashville. He and Walter had agreed to meet before Big Daddy went upstairs to Hoffa’s suite, and this is how Walter described their first meeting:

    “I walked to the Andrew Jackson Hotel and entered the lobby. I was self-consciously aware of being in the enemy camp and tried to be nonchalant. The hotel, located on a corner, had entrances on both streets. As I walked casually through the lobby, I noticed two men sitting together. I hand only a fleeting glance of them as I kept moving and went out the other entrance to the street. As I started backup the street toward the corner, a big man with brown wavy hair came around the corner walking toward me. I looked at his breast pocket and there was a handkerchief with a “P” on it.”

    I’m unsure why Walter said he haid brown hair, other than perhaps it was like mine in the 60’s, an auburn color that seems brown-ish in indoor lighting. He greyed quickly after testifying against Hoffa, and it’s possible that Walter’s memory is flawed because of the indoor lighting. Regardless, after meeting they chatted business and agreed to meet later, and Walter goes to his room at the nearby Noel Hotel to wait. Big Daddy goes upstairs to Hoffa’s suite and strategy headquarters, and shows up at Walter’s room later that evening. To put Walter’s descriptions in perspective, recall that he was a senior FBI agent with a long history of tracking the most ruthless mafia hitmen and Teamster bosses in history, and even then Big Daddy stood out.

    “When Partin got to my room, he sat down on the bed and I sat at the small desk next to him. He was an even bigger man than he had appeared in our brief meeting earlier. As he started to talk, I reached automatically into the desk drawer and pulled out a sheet of Noel Hotel stationary. I began taking notes.”

    Not only was Big Daddy physically remarkable, his presence influenced an FBI agent as experienced as Walter, who began Walter trusting everything Big Daddy said about Hoffa planning his defense for the Test Fleet trial. The Test Fleet was a trucking company Hoffa owned, and Bobby Kennedy’s prosecution network tried to convict Hoffa of using Teamster influence to benefit his own company. It was a relatively minor labor law trial, something that would have in a worse case resulted in heavy fines and maybe a light jail sentence, but Walter was hoping to catch Hoffa in a mistake that would escalate his charges from the state level to a felony under jurisdiction of the FBI. According to Walter’s notes, among the many things Big Daddy said Hoffa told him was, “We’re going to try to get a juror – or a few scattered jurors – and take our chances.” Bribing a juror is a felony, and after more than a decade of leading the Get Hoffa task force Walter must have paid very close attention to everything about my grandfather; his career would depend on it. Big Daddy says he has to return to Baton Rouge, and they begin keeping in touch until Big Daddy’s next meeting with Hoffa. On page 269, Walter describes trying to bug Big Daddy at the FBI headquarters in Washington DC a few weeks later:

    “Early the next morning John Cassidy met my plane and we drove in his car from Dulles to National Airport, arriving just in time to meet Partin. We then went directly to the Justice Department where Jack Miller had arranged for Al McGrath and FBI agent Bruce Fisher to meet us in my office. Fisher had special training in recording devices and had with him a small recorder, slightly longer and wider but not quite as thick as a pack of king-sized cigarettes. It was the smallest workable equipment available and was designed to be either taped on the small of the back or thigh or carried in a coat or trouser pocket. Fisher tried every possible way of secreting it on Partin, but Partin was so big and filled his clothes so snugly that there was always a detectable bulge. We finally reluctantly abandoned the effort. Partin decided he would go ahead anyway to the International headquarters to see Hoffa.”

    Hoffa would be convicted on Big Daddy’s word, not a recording. The jury was so enamored by Big Daddy’s charm that they barely deliberated despite the overwhelming reasons to toss out his testimony, and a few hours later they pronounced Hoffa guilty of jury tampering, a federal offense in what was originally a minor state trial. The judge sentenced Hoffa to 11 years in prison, and Hoffa fought Big Daddy’s testimony all the way to the Supreme Court, where the nuance about no recorded evidence surfaced in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s missive, a reoccurring consequence of Big Daddy’s physique and choice of a tailored suit that wouldn’t hide Walter’s recording device.

    “This type of informer and the uses to which he was put in this case evidence a serious potential for undermining the integrity of the truthfinding process in the federal courts. Given the incentives and background of Partin, no conviction should be allowed to stand when based heavily on his testimony. And that is exactly the quicksand upon which these convictions rest, because, without Partin, who was the principal government witness, there would probably have been no convictions here.”

    Warren was the only one of nine judges to vote against using Big Daddy’s testimony (two abstained). Big Daddy was that charming. All mafia, Teamster, and FBI books about Hoffa talk about Big Daddy and say that he was big and charming and remarkably brutal. Coming from mafia and Teamster strongmen, and the FBI who tracked them, that tells you a lot more than anything I could write.

    Incidentally, on pages 438-439 in “The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa,” Walter subtly mentions sending Big Daddy off to elk hunt near Flagstaff, Arizona, though he keeps the location and activities secret and its only through family lore that we know the location. At the time, Big Daddy’s Teamsters had been shooting up local businesses not willing to use union labor, and at the same time the New Orleans mafia was trying to intimidate him into recanting his testimony against Hoffa. Many shootouts, explosions, and other shenanigans were in the newspaper weekly. Walter mentions Louisiana governor McKeithen saying, “Partin had become a real problem for him,” and that he “personally liked and respected Partin but that he was driving him crazy.” And that McKeithen said, “Walter, get him out of my state. Now listen to what I’m sayin to you. Just get him out of my state. I’ll help you do it and I’ll give him immunity. You write it up and I’ll sign it. Just please get him across that state line.

    Walter wrote that his reply was:“But, I said, Partin had children in Baton Rouge, in the custody of his estranged wife, and was reluctant to leave them.” Soon after, Big Daddy owned a cabin in Flagstaff. He had always enjoyed taking my dad and Keith elk hunting in the Colorado Rockies, which was a reasonable driving distance away from Baton Rouge, so Bobby arranged for the government to buy him a cabin near Flagstaff, a long flight from a tiny airport and an unrealistic drive away, so that he would be out of McKeithen’s hair, and out of sight and sound of any threats or cries for help from Baton Rouge that could get him to recant his testimony against Hoffa. My dad and Keith would go hunting with him, though they kept the location of his cabin secret. After Hoffa vanished, Big Daddy was back in Baton Rouge more often, but still inconsistently, which is probably why I recall him in scattered memories and always with his elk knife. I never got to go hunting with him, but I heard that Big Daddy was naturally strong enough to heave a gutted elk carcass onto his shoulders and carry it home. That may just be apocryphal family lore, but if you had met him once you could see it happening. I’d be surprised if he even carried a gun to go hunting – he was remarkably quick with that knife.