I arrived at my grandfather’s funeral riding a motorcycle and wearing my high school letterman jacket. I turned off the motorcycle and took off my helmet, left it and my jacket on the bike, and walked past a crowd of reporters and the mayor’s police escorts. But I couldn’t get past the crowd of people surrounding a handful of LSU football players who must have showed up just before I did.
Everyone in Baton Rouge seemed more interested in the football players than the mayor or my grandfather. I overheard a few voices saying one of them, Billy Cannon, had won the Heisman Trophy. I had no idea what that was, but I assumed it was a big deal because all of the adults said it respectfully, and they gathered around him hoping for a photo. He had become a successful dentist, and was viewed as a hometown hero.
Billy had been Big Daddy’s bodyguard. That’s what we called my grandfather, Big Daddy, and though he didn’t need bodyguards, he loved LSU football and enjoyed having an entourage of football players. They all looked up to him, literally and figuratively. Besides, he had learned that in Baton Rouge, a few LSU football players around you got more business done than bringing a truck full of armed Teamsters.
For 30 years, Big Daddy ran the local Teamsters Union Local #5, which included 17 Louisiana Parishes and most Mississippi counties. It was the most powerful local of Jimmy Hoffa’s national Teamsters Union.
Big Daddy controlled all trucking in and out of New Orleans, America’s second largest ocean port, and the smaller ports of Baton Rouge and Biloxi; he oversaw 17% of all products shipped in and out of America, and negotiated deals with presidents and Fidel Castro. And he built and ran the Baton Rouge International Speedway – using materials stolen from 17 Louisiana parishes and a few Mississippi counties – and he brought Hollywood producers to Baton Rouge to film famous movies like Toy Story and Everybody’s All American.
Every mayor had listened to him, governors feared him, and presidents flew to see him. He was in the newspaper or on television every week. For more than 30 years, almost everyone in Baton Rouge knew him, was employed by him, or sought his assistance in getting work or getting out of trouble. He was a big deal in Baton Rouge.
I stood beside a Baton Rouge city police officer. He wouldn’t let me in – I wasn’t on the list – but he was nice about it. He looked like he had once been physically fit, and I assumed he had played football in high school, especially because he kept pointing out the older players he remembered.
I stood on my tip toes and tried to peer over shoulders in the crowd, hoping to see someone on the other side I recognized. Aunt Janice must have seen me, because I heard her voice call out.
“Jason! Over here!”
I stood on my toes a little bit higher, and saw her waving from just inside the doorway. I waved back, and told the police officer that my aunt was waiting for me inside. He looked at her, and she told him I was family. He stepped aside to let me pass, then resumed his position blocking the door and listening to Billy talk about being Big Daddy’s bodyguard back in the 60’s.
I approached Aunt Janice, and she bent down and hugged me. As she squeezed, I heard her voice behind my ear say, “I’m so glad you came,” and I knew she meant it, and I squeezed back.
I may not have seen her often, but I had no doubt she thought of me as family. We even looked alike, and shared Mamma Jean’s dark brown eyes; the shape was distinct, and anyone who saw us instantly knew we were related.
Aunt Janice stood back up, dried her red and puffy eyes with a Kleenex, put it back in her pocket and placed both hands on my shoulders and looked down at me.
“Look at you!” she said, and I knew what was coming next. “You’ve grown since I saw you last!” She said that every time I saw her, even when I hadn’t grown. I weighed 147 pounds that day, and had weighed 142 pounds the last time.
“When was the last time I saw you?” she asked out loud, more to think out loud than expecting me to know. But I told her that it had been a year and a half, shortly after my dad got out of jail the last time. It had been at the beginning of last year’s wrestling season. I wrestled at 142 back then.
She paused and contemplated what I assume was how quickly time flies. She had spent most of the past year and a half taking care of Big Daddy and her three kids. We had bonded over the phone during that time, probably because soon after I saw her last my Uncle Bob got sick, and I lived with him and cared for him his final three months, just like Aunt Janice did for her father. There’s something about sitting with someone you had loved as a child, especially as they become invalid and you care for their basic needs. In those times, they can talk and you can listen in ways no one else can understand. It had been hard on Aunt Janice, yet she had still found time to call me, and we talked on the phone more than any biologic family member I had ever known. I could forgive her for not remembering how long it had been since she saw me, or that I hadn’t grown at all.
“You dad’s here,” she said, finally. She looked around apprehensively, and asked, “When was the last time you saw him?”
I told her the same as the last time I saw her, just before he began college in Arkansas. She looked at me with sadness in her eyes, the same look I saw almost every time she asked when I had seen my dad last. I wondered why she kept asking.
“Well, Tiffany will be glad to see you.” I looked around, hoping to see my cousin. I hadn’t seen her since she graduated high school a year before. We had been friends as long as I could remember, and we had even stayed together for a few holidays at Mamma Jean’s house with some of our other cousins; half of us had Mamma Jean’s dark brown eyes, the other half had Big Daddy’s bright blue eyes.
“She’s speaking at Daddy’s euology…” her voice trailed off, and her tears flowed, and she pulled out her Kleenex and hid her eyes from me. She excused herself, and I went looking for Tiffany and more Kleenex.
There were at least a hundred people walking around so closely that I couldn’t see more than a few people in front of me, and because I was only 5’6” I couldn’t see over their shoulders, so I walked around and listened to people talk. They spoke freely.
“Billy’s here. He was Partin’s bodyguard,” said admirably.
“Not that he needed one!” followed by laughter.
“… a hero, saved Bobby Kennedy’s life!”
“… they found the safe in Amite River, and those witness were beat to death.”
“Of course Jean wouldn’t be here. Kay’s here. She never forgave Ed.”
“Tiffany turned out beautiful,” a woman’s voice said kindly. I looked that way, and hoped she’d notice me, too, but she didn’t.
“There’s Jason!” I looked around, but they were talking about my cousin, coincidentally named Jason Partin.
“Everyone’s so proud of Jason and Joe!”
I sighed. Jason was a local high school football star, and Baton Rouge loved football. His grandfather, Don, was Big Daddy’s brother, and his dad, Joe, had been Zachary High School’s football coach. I had never met any of them, even when my school wrestled against Zachary. They hadn’t kept in touch with my dad, like Aunt Janice had, so they had no reason to know me. Baton Rouge was a football town.
I navigated through the crowds, unknowingly working my way closer to Big Daddy’s casket, and I saw my dad at the same time that he saw me. He rushed towards me, opening his arms.
“Justin! I mean Jason, goddamnit!” He dropped to one knee, grabbed me by my shoulders, and pulled me towards him, roughly, as he said, “Come here, son.” He moved me around like a truck driver quickly changing a tire. I felt my body tense up. I was tired of being pushed around, and I was tired of being called Justin. As a kid, I had joked that I thought my name was Justin-Godamnit-Jason Partin, but now I wasn’t joking, and just wanted to be away from my dad.
“I love you, son,” he said.
“I love you too, dad,” I replied.
My dad was a large and fierce man, with dark brown eyes that seemed menacing peering from the shadows of his long and unkept black hair and thick black beard. He looked just like Aunt Janice, but with a beard and a scowl. He pushed me backwards, but clung to my shoulders and looked me up and down with his scowl barely peeking through his beard.
“You haven’t grown,” he said at last. “Boy, when I was your age, I wore the same size jacket as I do now.”
When you were my age, I thought, you had already abandoned your son and gone off to Jamaica or Cuba or wherever you went to buy drugs to sell.
But I remained silent and smiled. It was some of the few bits of advice Big Daddy ever offered: just smile at ‘em. Time Magazine had even quoted him on that, when Jimmy Hoffa and the mafia threatened him, he said he just smiled at them. Time showed a bunch of pictures of him smiling, with Janice and my dad and aunts and uncles staring up at him lovingly. He had a nice smile, and was very photogenic.
He had a permanent, if not genuine, smile, and most of my cousins and I shared some of his facial features that made it seem as if we were smiling, too. Though I couldn’t remember ever having seem my dad’s face behind his beard, I was sure he hadn’t inherited his Big Daddy’s smile.
“You doin’ good in school, son?” his asked.
“Gettin into trouble?”
Big Daddy could quote the bible, and he said that Jesus advised to only answer “yeah” or “no.” That advice seemed to work, especially when said with a smile.
“How are your teeth?” he demanded, reaching for my lips before I could answer. I pulled back and brushed his hand away; I hated when he spread my lips and stuck his finger in my mouth to see my teeth. When I got braces at 13, he thought that was part of the government’s conspiracy, along with adding fluoride to water and toothpaste. I was never sure why oral hygiene was a bad thing, or what exactly the government would gain by tricking citizens into having fewer cavities and straighter teeth, but I knew it bothered my dad. I told him I had my braces removed, and I opened my closed-lip smile and showed him my teeth, free from the metal that had plagued my mouth for three years. He was pleased with that. At least we agreed on something.
“Good! I love you son.”
“I love you, too, dad.”
He began telling me about what he had been doing since getting out of jail. He had gotten his GED, the General High School Equivalency Diploma, and started college. He was majoring in American history and political science, and had already had to defend his rights, he said. The university had asked him to leave after he refused to remove a t-shirt he made that said, “Fuck US Actions in Panama!” He had fought his right to free speech all the way to the state courts, and had won, somehow, though he agreed to remove the shirt after almost two weeks of wearing it. Knowing my dad, that shirt probably stank after two weeks, and removing it was a sensible compromise.
And, he had won a national essay contest, and would be speaking to Congress soon, about the right to burn the U.S. flag in protest against U.S. actions in Panama. As he talked his voice became louder and his body language and hand gestures seemed more agitated. He ranted more and more about the United States invading panama a months before, over the Christmas break, and how he made his t-shirt and wore it to the first few days of school in January. When they asked him to remove the profanity, he cursed at them and told them how fucked up it was that Reagan’s war on drugs was violating our own constitution: we weren’t allowed to send the marines after one man, President Noriega, just because President Reagan wanted to.
I tried to get him to pause, and tell him that it was the 82nd that parachuted into Panama, not the marines, and that I had joined the 82nd immediately after removing my braces six months ago. I had just been emancipated, declared a legal adult by the courts of Louisiana, and had been allowed to join the 82nd without a parent’s signature, even though I was only 16 years old and a minor in every other state. I was 17 at Big Daddy’s funeral, and would be leaving for the army in a few months, after that summer’s junior olympics, like I had planned when I requested my start date. But, he wasn’t listening – he rarely did – and people were becoming uncomfortable with his loud voice and agitated gestures, and an usher from the funeral home interrupted us and asked him to lower his voice. He began arguing with the usher about his right to free speech, and I walked away without finishing telling him that I had joined the 82nd Airborne, not the marines.
I walked away, letting the user deal with my dad, and soon found myself near Big Daddy’s casket. I nervously walked towards it to see him again. I peered into the casket, searching my body for how I felt. He looked remarkably the same. Even in death, he was smiling. But I didn’t feel anything remarkable, and I stood back and looked around.
I saw Grandma Foster and walked towards her. She was not my foster family – her name was a coincidence – but I had known her since I was a little kid. She was Big Daddy’s mother, but had remarried in the 1940’s, and everyone knew her as Grandma Foster.
“Hey, Grandma,” I said softly as I approached, smiling. She was sobbing gently, and leaning onto Doug’s big belly, and when she heard me she looked up and wiped her eyes with a handful of bunched up Kleenexes, and smiled broadly and released Doug so she could hold her hands up for me to hug her. I bent down and wrapped my arms around her and she squeezed me tightly.
“I’m glad you’re here, Hon,” she said in a voice choked with tears. Doug smiled at me. He was Big Daddy’s little brother and had the same smile, Grandma Foster’s smile, and he told me it was good to see me. His bright blue eyes contrasted with the ring of red bloodshot around them, and somehow, even through his tears, those eyes twinkled in a way that made his smile seem genuine. I knew him and Grandma the best of all my Partin family, and I told him it was good to see him, too. I didn’t know what else to say; this was only my second funeral.
Grandma began crying harder, and she squeezed me tighter. A minute or two later, she looked up at me and Doug and bawled something I didn’t understand through her tears and rural Southern Mississippi accent.
“You ain’t supposed to outlive y’er chil’dren,” I heard her say at last, then she buried her face in my chest and cried deeply. Big Daddy had died at age 66, and that was old to me, but to Grandma he was still her little boy.
She looked up and said, “Ed was a good boy.” Tears pooled in the wrinkles around her cheeks, and her her 88 year old blue eyes were hazed by cataracts, and no one could doubt that she believed what she said.
“He took care of us after his daddy left,” she explained to me. I had heard her say this before, and the story steadily grew to focus on the good things. Doug nodded in agreement. He had always looked up to his big brother, especially after their father had left them when Big Daddy was my age and Doug wasn’t yet a teenager. That had been in the 1930’s, during the Great Depression.
“He did what he had to do to take care of us,” Grandma said without remorse, in a tone that no one would question, especially at his funeral. That burst of reason must have drained her, and she collapsed back into my chest and sobbed a minute more. Doug reached for her, and she moved towards him. I walked away and looked for some of my cousins.
I saw several of my elementary school teachers in the crowd, but thankfully they didn’t recognize me. I especially resented my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Marcot, and I wasn’t surprised she was there. She would post newspaper clippings about Big Daddy in class every week, and had even told students they’d get extra credit if they wrote a report on the television movies about him that played in 1983. I didn’t write a report, so ironically I didn’t receive the extra credit, but I remember Mrs. Marcot telling everyone how much Big Daddy helped teachers. That was when I was told by my dad to never speak about family business, and I remained awkwardly quiet the entire 5th grade. Even seven years later, I felt awkward around her and the other teachers who looked up to my grandfather.
Big Daddy had supported them during statewide teachers strikes, when school shut down because teachers were holding pickets outside. He had given each one of them rolls of cash from his pocket, and told reporters covering the strike that the Teamsters support all working people, and implied that if teachers demands weren’t met he may ask the Teamsters to strike in support. The news loved that – it even showed up in national news magazines – and somehow everyone forgot that he asked for the cash back after reporters left. I’m pretty sure it was from the money he had embezzled from the Teamsters.
Almost everyone at his funeral were somehow involved in unions. A remarkable exception were the FBI agents on duty. When I saw them, they were so obvious and looked so much like FBI agents in movies and television, that I wondered why no one else seemed to think they were as remarkable as I did.
They wore sunglasses inside, had matching dark suits, and an earbud in one ear with a curly white chord draped over their shoulder and connecting to a large bulge under their jackets. I chatted with them a bit, because I was anxiousness to tell someone who would care that I had joined the 82nd. But they didn’t seem impressed, and barely took time away from scanning the crowd to talk with me. Perhaps I wanted them to notice me, but I’m not sure why I told them I had been one of the last people to see my grandfather, too. They seemed more interested then, and I told them what I remembered, but they seemed uninterested after. It was nothing that Aunt Janice hadn’t already told them.
But it wasn’t his words that mattered. I had hoped they, of all people, would see things how I saw them. I didn’t have the experiences and words yet to tell them why, but I wanted someone important to know that I didn’t trust Big Daddy. All of my life I seemed to be the only person who didn’t trust him, or at least follow him, or fall under his spell. He was big, handsome, and charming; and no one seemed to see past that except for me. I wanted to explain that wanting to not be like him or my family was the reason I didn’t drink alcohol and had joined the 82nd Airborne. I wanted to be a better person, and every time I was around Big Daddy I wanted more and more to leave Louisiana and my family. I thought FBI agents would be patriots, people who rose above petty local squabbles and saw a bigger picture. I hoped they would want to listen to me or even help me prepare for leaving, yet they were only focused on eavesdropping on people at the funeral. I glanced around the 100 people taking their seats to listen to my family speak, and I wondered why other people saw my grandfather differently than I did.
I had always wondered why I was the only one who saw Big Daddy differently, and at his funeral I noticed that I also seemed to be the only one who noticed the FBI agents. Aunt Janice and Doug were so used to it that they didn’t explain it to anyone, and I remember when our family was protected by federal agents in the 70’s, before I was in school. But, it seemed someone not in our family would stop looking at the mayor and LSU football players long enough to notice the two agents in sunglasses questioning people at a funeral. I didn’t understand other adults, especially since I had requested to be made one at age 16 and thought I was doing a better job at it than they were even after they had 40 years of practice.
The eulogies began, but I stayed by the FBI agents. Several rows of seats had been reserved for family, but they had forgotten to reserve one for me. And I felt important standing next to the FBI. In a few months, I’d be on the President’s Quick Reaction Force – that’s what the 82nd was known for recently – and I was sure they’d speak with me as a peer then. But, at the funeral, I wanted to test what it would feel like to be a federal agent overseeing a room of suspects.
The mayor spoke, and so did Billy. I can’t recall what they said. My cousins took turns reading letters they had written for Big Daddy. Tiffany began – I already knew what she’d say – and she spoke the most truthfully, from experience, because she had known him as I did, in the 1970’s. She loved him, but did not idealize him. And she and I spent a lot of time listening to Mamma Jean tell stories that she wouldn’t tell our younger cousins, so we knew he was flawed, yet our younger cousins only knew him from visiting him in prison a few times and spending time with him when he was released early for poor health, three years before his funeral, when all he wanted to do was play with grandkids. To Tiffany and me, the oldest of his grandkids, our little cousins seemed naive, repeating what their parents told them: He was a hero, and Big Daddy is in heaven now.
I disagreed. I couldn’t imagine Big Daddy in heaven. I wasn’t religious, but I had been reading the bible and working with teachers and Coach to become a better person ever since Big Daddy had gotten released from prison. To my knowledge, going to heaven required following the ten commandments, and I knew of at least seven that Big Daddy violated often.
The first was the big one, Thou Shall Not Murder. Even if there’s not an extra penalty for helping murder President Kennedy, Big Daddy had killed enough people over the years that there shouldn’t be any doubt that he had violated what I considered the most important commandment. And even though I confused “murder” with “manslaughter,” and he was only officially charged with manslaughter, the words alone implied something ungodly. Murder. Manslaughter. Any nuances should be debated by lawyers, not God, I felt.
Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery. I had two sets of cousins, one from Big Daddy’s second wife. I didn’t know her well and couldn’t recall her name, even though she was there and Mamma Jean was not. For a while, his two families overlapped without Mamma Jean knowing it. And though I was unsure if “adultery” included what my girlfriend and I did, and hopefully would continue doing, I was pretty sure that the god’s version included not cheating on your grandmother.
Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness. I only recently realized that’s what “perjury” means. He had been charged with perjury multiple times; and, ironically, his testimony sent Jimmy Hoffa to prison for jury tampering. I didn’t know if bearing false witness about bearing false witness was a double negative that somehow invalidated the sin; but, that, too, was best left to lawyers to debate.
Thou Shall Not Steal: he had embezzled $400,000. Like learning that perjury meant to bear false witness, I had only recently realized that “embezzle” was a fancy word for steal, and I hand’t thought much about it because he was never found guilty. The only two witnesses were found beaten, and one died, and no Baton Rouge jury would convict Big Daddy. I believed that God wouldn’t base his judgement on what a jury found, and that Big Daddy had stolen $400,000 from his brothers in the Teamster union.
And though beating people wasn’t against a commandment, and neither was rape or pulling a knife on my dad, I was sure that if there was a god he’d consider amending the commandments to include those things after meeting Big Daddy, assuming Big Daddy made it to heaven.
That wasn’t seven – I never could remember all of them, even when I tried – but I grouped raping and beating and knife pulling with the list of commandments I could remember. I had no idea if Big Daddy made carved images of gods or used the Lord’s name in vain, but I felt that those commandments seemed small compared to killing, stealing, and lying; and, I questioned any god who was so vain as to be jealous of wooden carvings, especially one who left things like rape and slavery as ambiguous. More importantly, I believed that there was no way Big Daddy was in heaven, no matter what the rules, because if that were true then we wouldn’t need rules because you could get away with anything. I suspected that my younger cousins were just repeating what their parents and Mamma Jean talked about in church every Sunday and usually on Wednesdays too, and I could see by the faces in the crowd that none of the adults knew any better about what Big Daddy had done or whether or not his actions led him to heaven.
I grew frustrated from seeing what no one else could see, and having no one ask me what I thought. And I felt more smug standing next to FBI agents, who knew as much as I did and much more than anyone else in the room except Janice and Doug, which is why they kept asking about Jimmy Hoffa and Kennedy. When the eulogies ended, I walked away from the FBI to mingle with the crowd as they passed Big Daddy’s casket. I felt detached, unable to understand why everyone else was crying about a bad person dying.
Big Daddy’s big casket surrounded by six huge pallbearers: Uncle Doug, Uncle Keith, Billy, and a couple of Teamsters I didn’t recognize. They stood there as the crowd walked past the casket and towards a smaller reception room. In the room, I settled near my dad, beside a giant floral arrangement made to look like an 18 wheeler truck and trailer, with yellow flowers forming the trailer and red flowers spelling out, “From Local #5.” A small plaque said it was from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and I, in a level of smugness that had grown during the eulogies, made a “humph” sound and thought that the Brotherhood was like Cane and Abel: my experience with Teamsters had been that they’d stab each other in the back to get out of trouble themselves, and I enjoyed using bible references to adults that couldn’t refute them.
But no one questioned me, because they were genuinely sad and enveloped in their grief. I was too young to know that at funerals, most people forget the bad things and focus on the good. Even my dad was crying so strongly that he barely noticed me. When he did, he put his arm around me and leaned on me slightly, sobbing. I was surprised. The only other time I had seen him sob was after he was arrested the third time, and I had assumed he was only ecstatic or angry, never sad. I didn’t know what to think, but my body was still on guard for a sudden change.
The pallbearers returned, and Doug approached the giant 18 wheeler from Local #5. He had been president after Big Daddy, and walked in front of the other pallbearers. He saw my dad and me, and probably was just as surprised as I was to see my dad crying.
“I’m sorry about your loss, Ed,” he said as he held out his hand for my dad to shake. “Your daddy was a good man.”
I felt my dad’s body tighten, and I saw his scowl deepen and grow angry. His right arm lifted off my shoulders, but not to shake Doug’s hand.
“Fuck you, Doug!” he shouted, and he slapped Doug’s hand away.
My dad moved forward and shoved Doug with both hands, hitting him so hard in the chest that Doug was off balance and flailed his arms as he stumbled backwards into the giant 18 wheeler flower arrangement. He landed against it upright with his arms flayed out, like Jesus on a cross, and my dad quickly moved towards him.
He grabbed Doug’s jacket lapel with his left hand, and began swinging his right fist towards Doug’s face. But, Billy Cannon tackled him before his fist hit. It took Bill and three Teamsters to drag my dad away as he shouted, “Fuck US Actions in Panama!”
I don’t recall if the FBI agents did anything, but I wondered if he yelled at them hoping they’d share his sentiment with President Reagan. He really hated Ronald Reagan; don’t get him started.
There’s nothing like a fight to disrupt a funeral, but the Partin family did an admirable job at returning to their grieving. They saw a lot of violence in our family, and I was always surprised by how everyone else ignored it. I was too frustrated to stay, so I left without saying goodbye to anyone, not even Aunt Janice or Tiffany. I felt bad about not saying goodbye to Grandma Foster, but I knew I’d see her the next day.
I walked outside to my motorcycle and put on my jacket and helmet, and started the bike and rev’ed the engine a few more times and a bit more loudly than necessary, hoping someone would notice I was leaving. No one did, so I pulled out of the parking lot of Resthaven Memorial Gardens and onto Airline Highway. A minute later I was accelerating up the I-10 onramp, and then I was flying along the raised interstate towards downtown Baton Rouge, on my way to the wrestling club.
But I was thinking about what my dad said, and I missed a turn where the interstate split. I didn’t realize it until I was flying over water, crossing the Mississippi River over the port of Baton Rouge. The river’s almost a mile wide there, and I was behind several 18 wheelers slowly accelerating up the steep bridge, so I had plenty of time to sit upright and shake off my thoughts. Besides, I had always enjoyed that view: the old state capital was below me, designed like a castle in fairy tales, and the new state capital stood out on the horizon; it was America’s tallest state capital, and beautiful, even with the smoke stacks from Chemical Alley behind it. And below me were dozens of tugboats pushing barges around, like a scene from the Mark Twain books I had grown up loving. Baton Rouge hadn’t changed much in 100 years – even Twain complained that our state capital was an eyesore on his trip another 83 miles downriver to New Orleans – and I loved it, but. I also was ready to leave it.
Ever since I had joined the army, I found myself stopping and enjoying Baton Rouge, more than the adults who lived there and only seemed to talk about work and LSU football. It was beautiful, and full of history.
I exited I-10 in Plaquemine, and u-turned around it’s confusing clover leaf ramps twice before I found my way back towards Baton Rouge. I took time to admire the view again, but this time I was on the other side and saw LSU’s Tiger Stadium and the golden buildings of LSU’s Italian villa styled campus. The azelas were blooming, so campus was awash with red flowers. To my left was the Riverboat Casino, where I performed magic, and the Centroplex, where Hillary Clinton broke my finger. A few moments later, I leaned forward on my motorcycle again, and began descending into downtown Baton Rouge.
I followed signs to the state capital and turned left, down the road we ran at summer wrestling camps. I passed a few abandoned buildings and turned left at the rotating hot dog sign of a 24 hour convenience store with barred windows. The wrestling club was unadvertised, in an old car garage, and I pulled into the alley behind it and hid my motorcycle behind a few garbage cans piled up in a corner. I walked back around, and used my key to enter.
I stepped in, flipped on the lights, took off my shoes, and mopped the wrestling mat out of habit. I began to feel invigorated as the familiar smell of fungicide reminded my body that I’d be wrestling soon. I put the mob and bucket back in the closet and grabbed my school backpack and dug out workout clothes. The mat was dry by the time I had changed, and I stepped onto it and instantly began shooting across, stepping forward with one leg with my upper body centered over my hips, bursting through space with a lower center of gravity than my opponent’s, and standing up on the other side with him lifted in the air and ready to be slammed to the mat as gently as required by regulations.
I shot back and forth for at least 20 minutes, usually how long it took to break a sweat in the cooler springtime weather, then picked up the heaviest throw dummy and stood before him and began drilling throws, stepping across with my right foot and pivoting around both feet as my hips pushed out and my arms pulled down. I threw the dummy for ten or fifteen minutes, until I was breathing hard, then walked over to the weight room out of habit. I paused, looked down at my two left middle fingers, still buddy taped together after Hillary Clinton broke the ring finger, and decided to wait until it had healed before lifting weights. Junior Olympics wasn’t for another three or four months, so I wasn’t in a rush. Besides, I would be wrestling at 145 pounds, and it was hard enough to drop weight lately, so I didn’t want to add more muscle weight.
I paced around the room, my heartbeat raised and ready for exercise, but without something to focus on, like lifting weights or wrestling Hillary Clinton, my mind wandered and my thoughts bounced, and my thoughts kept bouncing back to Big Daddy’s funeral. At first, I thought about my dad’s shirt, but my mind kept wandering to how I felt seeing Big Daddy again, with his eyes closed and a smile still on his face. I never could find the words to explain how I felt the first time I saw him – the first time as a teenager, after he got our of prion, not like I remembered him when I was seven years old – and I had hoped that seeing him in a casket would let me feel it again, so that I could understand it. Nothing was there. I didn’t sense anything in his body, and I didn’t feel anything in mine that reminded me of that first time time three before. It was nothing like the first time.
I kept trying to see it again, to understand why meeting Big Daddy made me want to leave Louisiana. It made me seek being a better person. It’s how I ended up on the wrestling team, how I met Coach, and why I had spent the past year training to wrestle Hillary Clinton in the state finals for 145 pounds. And Coach is why I was unconcerned that I had lost, and that he had broken my finger. It had always been about a process that began with meeting Big Daddy, never really a goal. But I had never felt that feeling again, and didn’t know any movie or book that described it.
Finally, my thoughts returned to Hillary Clinton. He was a monster, undefeated in two years, a three-time state champion, and captain of the Capitol High Lions. I, of all people, knew that real life wasn’t like movies – all of the Hoffa and Kennedy movies had it wrong – so I never expected to beat him. I just loved the process of improving, especially when the real world saw me become a better in leaps and bounds. If someone beat me, it only took a week until the next tournament for me to have either beaten them or have gotten very close. Except for Hillary. He had beaten me seven times that year, and though I got closer and closer to not being beaten as badly every time, I had never hoped that I would beat him, which is why the process was more important than the goal to me.
I laid on my back, folded my arms behind my head, stared at the asbestos that always seemed ready to fall on us at practice, and reflected on the past year of matches that took me up to finals, all 52 of them. And the 70-something from the year before, though I had lost most of those. And the 16 from first year. I had lost all of those.
My heartbeat slowed, and I saw myself drifting off to sleep. I rarely dreamed, but my thoughts often turned to science fiction books as I fell asleep, and ideas like dreams would float in and out of my consciousness, and as I drifted away I wondered if the wrestling dummy beside me could dream. If so, would he dream of being a real boy and leaving Louisiana, or would he dream of extracting revenge on me the thousands of times I had thrown him onto the mat. I smiled at the idea of being chased by a legless Pinocchio, especially one that I knew I could defeat easily, and I drifted into sleep, peacefully, on the night of Big Daddy’s funeral: March 16th, 1990.
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