I arrived at my grandfather’s funeral early, but no one recognized me, so the police didn’t allow me in. I stood on my tip-toes and tried to look over the shoulders of reporters as they took photos of the mayor and LSU football players who had just arrived, but I didn’t see anyone who could let me inside. Aunt Janice must have seen my head poking through the crowd, and she called out to me.
“Jason!” I heard. “Over here!”
I tried to stand even taller, and then I saw Aunt Janice waiving at me from inside the reception hall. I navigagted through the crowd, but was stopped by another policeman. “He’s family,” Aunt Janice told him, and he let me pass.
Janice bent down and hugged me and said, “I’m so glad you came,” still squeezing me. She sniffed a few times to hold back her runny nose. She released her hug, stood up, wiped her eyes with a Kleenex tissue then used it to dry her nose. “I’m sorry,” she said as she tucked the Kleenex into her purse and pulled out a clean one from a pouch of travel tissues. “I haven’t stopped crying since Daddy died.”
Aunt Janice stopped sniffing and looked at me from my head down to my big feet and back up again. I knew what was coming.
“Look at you! You’ve grown since I saw you last,” she said from habit.
She always said I had grown, even if I hadn’t grown at all. I weighed 147 pounds that day, and had weighted 142 pounds when she saw me last, a year and a half ago. But I didn’t argue. I assumed all aunts felt that all nephews were bigger and all nieces were prettier than last time, no matter how long it had been.
She frowned, and looked up in the air as if trying to remember something, and asked the air, “How long has it been since I’ve seen you?”
I just mumbled something about it had been since before last year’s wrestling season, after my dad got out of jail the last time. She forced a smile and said, “Oh, that’s right. Well, you’ve grown so much! We’re so proud of you.”
My dad had always said I was the runt of our family, even though I was average compared to most kids in school my age. But to be fair to him, most people seemed small compared to my Partin family.
My grandfather was Edward Grady Partin, but everyone called him Big Daddy because of his size and his presence; he owned every room he entered with his smile and charm, even at his funeral. And his brothers were all just as big, just like my dad and uncles.
Even Aunt Janice towered over me. She rested her hand on my shoulder as she looked around the crowded reception hall without needing to stand on her toes.
“Your dad’s here, somewhere,” she said with trepidation. She said a few more things I don’t remember, then went back to greeting other family she hadn’t seen in a year or so, since moving in with Big Daddy to help care for him.
I saw my cousin, Tiffany, Janice’s daughter, but she was talking to a group of family I didn’t know so I dind’t walk over. Everyone liked talking with her. She was only a year older, but had always seemed much more mature. As a kid, I had looked up to her, literally and figuratively. She had always been taller than me.
She had become popular in school when I was not, and she was beautiful, just like Janice and Mamma Jean, and her high school’s classmates had voted her prom queen last year. She was smiling, but her eyes were puffy, like Aunt Janice’s.
We had the same eyes: Mamma Jean’s dark brown eyes. Her brother, Damon, was beside her, and even though he was two years younger than I was, he was bigger. He had bright blue eyes like Uncle Kieth and Big Daddy, and he had inherited Big Daddy’s smile. Tiffany had not, yet her brown eyes and frown made her look contemplative or insightful rather than serious or angry, like Aunt Janice or my dad.
I had Mamma Jeans brown eyes, but had also inherited Big Daddy’s smile. People would think I was smiling for reasons other than that’s simply how my face rested, regardless of what I was thinking or feeling. That smile had gotten me out of trouble at school many times, probably like Big Daddy’s smile had gotten him out of jail.
I walked around the inside of Resthaven Gardens of Memory Funeral Home, and for the first time I began to understand that Big Daddy had been a big deal to more than just my family. I overheard people talking about the other guests and my grandfather, probably unaware that the little dark-eyed teenager was Ed Partin’s grandson; you’d have to look closely to see the family resemblance, and even then, you’d probably have to know what you were looking for.
I saw my dad at the same time he saw me, and he rushed towards me, opening his arms like Aunt Janice had done.
“Justin! I mean Jason, goddamnit!” He dropped to one knee, grabbed me by my shoulders, and said, “Come here, son,” as he pulled me into a hug with the grace of a truck driver changing a tire.
“I love you, son.”
“I love you, too, dad,” I said from habit, frustrated that he could still jerk me around, but still smiling. I hated that he still called me Justin. When I was a kid, I joked with friends that I thought my name was Justin Jason Goddamnit Partin, but now it didn’t feel funny. I was an adult now, goddamnit.
He pushed me backwards but held onto my shoulders. He looked me up and down, frowning, as usual, and said, “You haven’t grown. Boy, when I was your age, I wore the same sized jacket I wear now.”
When you were my age, I thought, you had already walked away from your son and had been arrested for selling drugs. But I just smiled.
I felt I was more adult than most of my family, though I was unconfident and didn’t tell them that. I told a judge, and he agreed, especially when no one could find my dad for several months, and he had emancipated me when I was 16. By Big Daddy’s funeral, I had been divorced from all families, and I had been legally free to make my own choices since the beginning of my senior year in high school.
“You got your braces off,” he said as he kept trying to spread my lips apart. I mumbled that I had them taken off a few months ago, before I joined the 82nd, but he either didn’t hear me or wasn’t listening. If he had, he have reacted, and every time my dad reacted it was memorable, so I’m sure he either didn’t hear me or wasn’t listening. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
He talked incessantly about how he passed the GED, started college, and fought a bunch of assholes so that he could keep wearing a shirt that said, “Fuck U.S. Actions in Panama!”
He had designed the shirt himself, using a mostly clean t-shirt and a black felt til marker, and he had worn it for a week after the United States invaded Panama a few months before, during Christmas. His voice raised as he ranted, and he pointed a finger or tapped my chest with it to emphasize each of the many points he was making.
Fortunately, someone who worked at the funeral home walked over and asked him to lower his voice. As my dad began ranting about free speech and pointing his finger at the infinitely more patient usher, I used the opportunity to walk away from my dad and look for Grandma Foster.
Grandma was Big Daddy’s momma, and I alway wondered how such a tiny woman gave birth to such big men. She was around 5 feet tall, and even I had to lean over to hug her. She hunched over and wrinkled, and as a kid I thought she looked like Yoda, the wrinkled and green muppet, but pale white and with a sweet smile and cloudy blue eyes that had been obscured by cataracts as long as I knew her.
I saw Grandma Foster crying against Uncle Doug’s big chest. She looked up at him and bawled “You ain’t sup’osed t’ outlive yer chil’ren…” then fell back into his arms and cried some more.
Uncle Joe was there, too. He and Doug were her two surviving sons. Doug had been elected president of the local teamsters while Big Daddy was in prison, but Joe had eschewed the teamsters and became a football coach and high school principal. I knew who he was, and even competed against his school, but had never met him or his son, who was coincidentally also named Jason Partin.
I saw Jason for the first time that day, and felt aggitated because he was bigger than me, even though I was a few years older. I knew he played football, but I never saw him or Joe when I wrestled against Zachary High School, but I heard he was a nice guy and uninterested in the Teamsters, which is probably why I hadn’t met him at the local union headquarters with Kieth and Doug.
I walked over to Grandma. I don’t think Joe and Jason recognized me, but Doug said it was good to see me. He told Joe I was Ed’s son, and Joe nodded as if that explained a lot. “Nice to meet you,” Coach Joe said, which was a lie, and all he has ever said to me.
Grandma looked up at me with tears pooled in her wrinkled cheeks, and her cataract-covered blue eyes squinted from the breadth of her smile, and she let go of Doug and held out her arms so that I could bend over and hug her. We squeezed each other softly, and said nothing for a few moments.
Over the years, I had grown to love Grandma. She had told me about my Partin family, like she had told them about me, and that’s the only reason Joe and Jason knew who I was. If I felt connected to the family, it was only because of Grandma Foster and Aunt Janice; but, ironically, they never spoke after Grandma welcomed Big Daddy’s new wife and family into her home. They were at the funeral, but I hadn’t seen them yet.
I loved my little Grandma Foster, and I felt her sadness and shed tears with her because of compassion. She misread my tears as my own sadness rather than being with hers, and she moved her hands to mine and squeezed one with both of hers and smiled and said, “I’m glad you came. You look so handsome, just like your daddy. You was always a good boy.”
Her smile faded and she looked away and said, “Ed was a good boy.”
I didn’t know if she was talking about my Big Daddy or my dad; he had stayed with her when he was my age and younger.
“You a good boy, too,” she repeated. “You was always good to y’er Grandma.” She paused, and swayed my hands back and forth so slightly no one watching would have noticed, then began crying again.
I hugged her for a few minutes while Doug waited, then Doug stuck out his hand graciously, and I shook it. My body was small, but for my hands and feet were Partin sized, and my paw rested respectfully in his mitten, and I squeezed tightly enough to show I was strong. But not so tightly that it would be obvious that I was trying. I had some pride, after all.
“We’re glad you’re here. You’re family.” Doug’s smile seemed genuine, and I stood up more straight and thanked him and said I was sorry for his loss.
“Your dad’s here,” he said, not looking around, but watching me and my reaction. I told him I had seen him, and we had spoken. I couldn’t tell if he had heard my dad ranting about Panama and Reagan and the war on drugs.
Some of Big Daddy’s grandkids from his second marriage showed up at the funeral home and walked over, so I excused myself from Doug and Grandma and mumbled something to the cousins I barely knew. I walked around the funeral home again, and overheard people talking about the pallbearers.
Doug was one of Big Daddy’s six pallbearers, and he was standing near the casket with the other five. They were all huge men. I didn’t know them, but I had learned that they were a big deal by overhearing what people said. Two were former LSU football players, and in Baton Rouge, home of the Louisiana State University Tigers, where college football players were respected more than the mayor and almost as much as Big Daddy.
One of the pallbearers, Billy Cannon, had even won the Heisman Trophy, I heard people say. I had no idea what that was, but it must have been a big deal, because so many people mentioned it.
The minister announced that services would begin, and asked the family to take their seats. My dad tried to get me a seat – they had forgotten about me when planning the funeral – but I said I was preferred standing. I found a place against a wall near two FBI agents.
They weren’t even trying to hide, I thought. They looked like the FBI agents in movies: short and slicked-back hair, sunglasses even indoors, and – I’m not making this up – an earbud with a curly white wire coming from their ear to their shoulder and disappearing under their coats. They even spoke into their coat lapels during the services. This was 1990, before cell phones and wireless technologies, and apparently before FBI agents realized that they were charactertures of themselves from movies, like the 1980’s movie about Big Daddy and Hoffa and the FBI.
I had seen them earlier, and had wondered why no one else thought they were as obvious as I did. Maybe people at the funeral didn’t watch the same movies that I did, and Men in Black or The Matrix hadn’t even been made yet.
The two agents had been asking my family what Big Daddy had told them in his final few weeks. They would have recognized the family by their blue eyes and smile, and because the family had assigned seats. They never asked me anything, and I don’t remember most of what they asked, or what they whispered into their coat lapels. I only remember a few words and names.
“Billy Cannon was his bodyguard,” someone said.
“Ha! As if Ed needed one,” said another.
“…was Hoffa’s bodyguard once…”
“… ended up dead, at the bottom of the Amite River, with the safe…”
“… he died, too…”
“what do you call a Teamster wearing a tie? The defendant! Ha!” (Even I laughed at that.)
“… Ruby …”
“… his granddaughter’s gorgeous…” (she was)
“… the Heismann Trophy! And he’s a dentist now…” (I thought about how much I preferred not having braces.)
I overheard more than a few women say that Big Daddy was handsome, just like his son, Keith, and his grandson, Damon. But, most of the talk I overheard wasn’t gossip, it was appreciation for the jobs Big Daddy had brought to Baton Rouge, and how he had fought for fair wages. Men spoke of how he saved their family and stood up for them, and how they looked up to him. It seemed that women wanted him, and men wanted to be like him.
My 5th grade teacher was there, and so was one of my principals and a few teachers I recognized from different schools, but they didn’t recognize me, probably because it had been a long time. They spoke about teacher union strikes, and how Big Daddy got the Teamsters to support the teachers and get them more pay and benefits. They all talked about when they were on strike and not getting paid, and would have quit the strike to go back to work if Big Daddy hadn’t given them money from his own pocket.
They didn’t know it probably wasn’t his money, that it was probably the Teamsters or the mafia’s, and they didn’t remember that he asked for it back from the teachers union treasurer after reporters from New York Times left. I believed I knew more than even my history teacher.
Several of my teenage cousins spoke to the crowd at Big Daddy’s funeral. They were all better speakers than I was, and even though they lived in Houston, they didn’t have my mumbly southern accent. People listened to them and said how smart and sweet they were. They told sweet stories about him that I had never heard, and all of them ended by saying Big Daddy was in heaven.
I thought that was funny, and not just because it was a play on the Lord’s prayer, ‘Our father, who art in heaven,” but mostly because I wondered if we had different grandfathers or we different understandings of what it took to go to heaven. I knew Big Daddy had broken at least seven of the ten commandments, including the big ones: thou shall not kill, steal, commit adultery, or bear false witness. And though “thou shall not rape,” and “thou shall not beat witnesses,” weren’t commandments, I figured that God would update His rules and close the loopholes Big Daddy actually made it to heaven.
After the service, people stood up and began walking to the reception hall. I was one of the first there, because I had been standing near the door, and I stood near the flowers sent to Big Daddy’s funeral and studied the most obvious floral arrangement. It was big as a school classroom’s chalk board, back when schools still used chalk, and was made from bright yellow flowers arranged to look like the side view of an 18-wheeler truck.
Across the truck bed, written in red flowers, was, “From Local #5,” and under the truck was a plaque with the Teamster’s logo, two horse heads left over from the 1800’s, when teamsters drove horse wagons instead of trucks. The plaque said, “The International Brotherhood of Teamsters.” Like Cain and Able, I thought. I associated the Teamsters with fighting.
My dad was crying when he walked into the reception hall. He saw me by the 18-wheeler and walked over and put his arm gently around my shoulder. He sobbed silently by my side for a few minutes, then he pulled me closer and told me he loved me. He said my name correctly that time. I knew he was a good person, and not just because Grandma said so. But he was hard a hard man to love.
Grandma Foster came out, crying loudly. Doug walked with her, and he kept one hand on her shoulder. Keith and the other pallbearers followed, but only Doug and Keith were crying. They all shook hands with people near the flower arrangements, and talked about memories with Big Daddy. Billy Cannon smiled a lot and bright white teeth. He was probably an excellent dentist.
Doug saw my dad and me, and walked over. His warm smile belied the sadness in his puffy bright blue eyes, and he stuck out his big hand and said softly, “I’m sorry for your loss, Ed. Your daddy was a good man. We’re all gonna miss him.”
My dad stood upright and narrowed his dark brown eyes and looked intense and angry. His eyebrows were angle low in anger, and almost touched his nose. His jaw tightened and his frown narrowed into a scowl. Suddenly, his arm flew from my shoulder and slapped Doug’s hand away and he shouted, “Fuck you, Doug!”
My dad stepped forward and shoved Uncle Doug, knocking him backwards. I swear I felt the shockwaves from my dad’s hands hitting Doug’s chest with an audible Thump!, and I heard Doug’s breath leave through the pursed lips of his shocked countenance, and I watched him flail his arms as he stumbled backwards. He wasn’t smiling.
He fell against the 18-wheeler with his arms spread like Jesus on a cross, and as he lowered his arms and stood up straight my dad was already there, clenching Doug’s coat lapel with his left hand and swinging his right fist towards his uncle’s face.
But Billy tackled my dad before the punch landed. It t took Billy and four Teamsters to drag my dad away, and as they left, I recall my dad shouting, “Fuck U.S. Actions in Panama!” I don’t remember if the FBI did anything. I assumed he was shouting at them, because they were the closest thing to Ronald Reagan he’d ever see, especially with his temper.
There’s nothing like a fight to disrupt the flow of a funeral. I left without saying goodbye to anyone, and walked to the parking lot and put on my letterman jacket and motorcycle helmet. I straddled my bike and started the engine, and rev’ed the gas a few more times than necessary, hoping someone would notice I was leaving. No one did, so I pulled out of the parking lot of Resthaven Garden of Memories funeral home and headed home.
I accelerated onto Airline Boulevard. After a few traffic lights, I saw the sign for Interstate 12, and I headed up the on-ramp and accelerated as much as I could. My bike was small, a 500cc Honda Ascot, but to me it seemed as if I were flying towards the sky like Superman.
I tucked my body against the fuel tank as I flew along the raised interstate above the streets of Baton Rouge. I lost track of time, and didn’t see where I was going until I was flying over the Mississippi River. Shit! I thought. Not again.
I always missed the exit between I-12 and I-10, and always had to turn around on the other side of the Mississippi. The river was almost a mile across at this point, and now I was on I-10, full of 18-wheelers going from the ports of Baton Rouge and New Orleans to the rest of the country, and those big trucks couldn’t accelerate uphill as fast as my motorcycle, so I slowed down and sat upright and looked up and down the Mississippi on the slow mile ride across the Baton Rouge bridge.
I watched the tug boats push barges a hundred feet below, and in the distance I saw one of the big ocean liners coming up from the Gulf of Mexico and past New Orleans. They’d have to stop at the Baton Rouge port and transfer their goods to the Local #5 Teamsters, and the teamsters would dribe their trucks across the country, along I-10.
Once on the other side of the Mississippi, I followed the clover-leaf exit in a giant loop that pointed me back towards Baton Rouge, and flew like Superman again. This time, I looked for signs and saw one with an airplane, and I took the exit towards Baton Rouge’s airport and looked for the state capital building, the tallest building in Louisiana and the tallest capital in America. We were all proud of that. Time magazine had chosen the top of our state capital for a photo of Big Daddy and my dad and Keith, when they were little boys, just before the Hoffa trial in Chatanooga.
I slowed down and took an off-ramp, descending from the elevated interstate and into downtown Baton Rouge. I kept the state capital in my sights, and navigated through stop signs until I reached the levee, then kept the levee on my right until I reached the capital grounds and pulled into the empty parking lot.
The parking lot was almost empty – not many people ventured downtown back then, because it was full of black people and drug dealers, most people said, though they may have used different words. They weren’t completely wrong, I thought. Sonny, a drug dealer I remembered from childhood, lived a few blocks away, but I didn’t want to see him that day.
I looked up at the capital building, up the steps labeled with each state’s name, and remembered running up and down those steps during summer wrestling camps. I saw us at the top, jumping up and down with our arms in the air, like Rocky.
A few of us would even go inside, skipping the elevator with its bullet holes from when Governor Huey Long was gunned down, and trying to run up the ancient staircase to the observation deck 34 stories in the sky. We’d pant and gasp and give high-fives and look over the Mississippi River almost every morning, every summer.
I’d miss that when I left for the 82nd in a few months, I thought.
I felt my cheeks twitching, like my dad had before he slapped Doug’s hand, and I looked around to get my bearings so I could leave. I saw the same road I had run down many times, and slowly steered my bike towards it. A few turns later, I was at the downtown wrestling camp.
I pulled my bike into the alley behind the camp, an old garage with metal columns supporting a ceiling still covered in asbestos, and used my key to get inside. I flipped on the lights, took off my shoes, grabbed a mop and bucket, and cleaned the wrestling mat out of habit.
The smell of fungicide on a freshly mopped wrestling mat spoke to me, and I put away the mop bucket and stepped back onto the mat after letting it dry for a few minutes. I shot across the mat, stepping forward deeply with one leg and keeping my chest parallel with the wall, then pulling my hands tightly to my chest as I stood up and allowed the trailing leg to slide along the mat until I was in a good stance, then I repeated the shot with the other leg leading.
I shot back and forth across the mat until I had a slight sweat and was breathing heavily, and my thoughts were gone and my mind was clear and focused; though I wouldn’t have said it that way back then, because I didn’t realize why I loved wrestling so much.
When I wasn’t thinking, I picked up one of the throw dummies that padded one of the steel poles holding up the two-story ceiling, and I practiced throwing the dummy. I stood it up, slid my left arm into its right arm pit, and pushed its arm up with my left shoulder. I paused, allowing time for the dummy to push back down, then stepped forward and put my right foot near my left as I wrapped my right arm around the dummy’s head and simultaneously pivoted my hips into his and added to the momentum he had begun by trying to force his arm back down. That dummy fell for it every time.
I threw the dummy until I was dripping with sweat, and on my final throw I let him hit the ground harder than would be allowed in a tournament. The loud thump! echoed in the gym, and satisfied my soul in ways I recognized but didn’t understand. I pulled up with my right arm – I wasn’t ambidextrous with throws like I was shots, so I always landed on my right side – and arched my hips into the air to put my full weight onto his chest as I pulled his head up, and I pinned him. The crowd went wild, but instead of standing to have my arm raised by the referee, I rotated my body and looked up at the asbestos covered ceiling with my head resting on the dummy.
I don’t remember how long I sat there, but it was getting dark when I turned off the lights and laid back down on the mat to sleep. My mind was full of memories, more like impressions of intense emotions than detailed memories, but I drifted off to sleep anyway, maybe because the fungicide was probably more toxic than the asbestos. And even though I fell asleep with memories on my mind, I didn’t dream that night. I don’t know if the dummy did.