Christmas, 1976, Part I

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

“Which ones?” [the rich man] inquired.

Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Matthew 19:17-21

Wendy, Debbie, and I peel out of PawPaw’s driveway in Wendy’s Datsun and turn towards the convenience store so fast that gravel bounces up and down the blacktop behind us. We zip right on Plank Road without stopping at the store. The airport is a blur beside us, and we fly up the I-110 onramp towards downtown. The autumn weather is crips, for Baton Rouge, so Wendy and Debbie barely crack the windows. Debbie chats with me in the back seat, and I show her my thumb tricks while she rolls a joint from her bag with the blue flowers. A full joint later, we pull into the two story brick apartment complex behind a Florida Buelevard Chinese restaurant, the one with an all-you-can-eat buffet and a bowl of fortune cookies by the checkout. Like always, smoke is wafting from its kitchen smokestack, like steam from the towers jutting into the sky along Chemical Alley when you look at them from atop the old state capital. The open dumpster behind the smoke stacks faces the apartments. It swarms with flies, and wafts an odor like week-old road kill lying in a drainage canal during the heat of midsummer. It was home one weekend a month.1

We drop Debbie off with her family in a two-bedroom corner apartment facing the woods and far from the swarms and odors, and Wendy and I drive back towards the restaurant, park in the lot facing Florida Buelevard, and walk inside her ground-floor two-bedroom apartment. The front door faces the parking lot, the kitchen door faces the woods. The living room has something that may have once been a couch, and one of those wooden spools from power lines as a table. A gap leads to a galley kitchen with peeling grease stained wallpaper that had residual flower patterns, like MawMaw’s dressesIt’s early, and I hadn’t eaten yet and had an overpowering case of the munchies. There were no snacks in the refrigerator, only packaged food that needed to be cooked. Despite the crisp day, she opens the back door to let in fresh air. She begins making breakfast by lighting the gas stove and lining up strips of bacon in one of Auntie Lo’s old 8″ cast iron skillets.

I’m wearing yesterday’s clothes, and I had forgotten my backpack on the couch at PawPaw’s. I walk to my room at Wendy’s and struggle to open the ricketdy second or third hand dresser. My left arm is in a cast. I had broken it when I fell or tripped into one of those big round concrete tubes on playground. I was running, and either tripped on my big feet or was pushed by one of the kids on the playground or one of the creepy Jajova Witnesses who hung around there. At the emergency room, the doctors said it was a simple break on my elbow, and I didn’t even get to stay overnight and play in the common room. Wham! Bam! Here’s your casts, and there’s the door, man. Our brief visit had so upset Wendy that she cried and cried, and cursed that thing she kept calling a deductible. I liked my cast; it was like a bandage on my head, people told keep telling I must be brave. I was. And despite what the nurse had said, I could even dress myself with the cast keeping my arm bent at 90 degrees. To prove it, I pull out my BeeGees shirt with my right hand, and lay it out on the ratty mattress like Wendy would. I struggle get my shirt off, because it keeps catching on my cast, and the jerking motion makes my arm hurt. I whimper, despite knowing only baby’s cry. Wendy comes in and smiles and squats down beside me and rubs my back. I calm down. She removes my sling – I had forgotten to do that part – and gently slides my 90-degree arm wrapped in plaster out of the shirt’s short sleeve. She smiles broadly and gasps! That wasn’t too bad, she says. She removes my shirt and sets in on the bed beside the one I had removed. She spreads the clean one out. I don’t see the BeeGees, I see the back. I tell her it’s backwards. She says she’ll do a magic trick if I stick out my arm. I do. She guides it into the shirt and out the right sleeve, then gently guides my cast through it and then my head. She rotates me to the full-length mirror hanging on the inside of my door, and I see the three BeeGees in their gold shirts standing beside each other under the big cursive BeeGees logo. I laugh and ask how she did that! She laughs with me and her eyes crinkle. She says magic! She says if I try it next time, it’ll work. I don’t believe her. She says she’ll show me an even better upside-down trick.

She reaches in her pocket and pulls out a dollar bill. She puts her finger on the center and asks me which way George Washington is facing. I assume she means the old man. I say something like upside down or the wrong way. She says to watch, to not let her move too quickly, and she folds the bill in half, hiding George’s upside down face, and then in half again. Slowly, she unfolds the bill, and his face is facing the right way.2 I gasp! She gives me the dollar, and says it’s mine and I could learn that money is magic. She’s about to teach me when we smell of burnt food and grease smoke that overpowers even the Chinese dumpster. Wendy exclaims something and rushes out. I follow, and hear a loud screech, an exclamation without words, followed by several more in rapid succession and timed to the beat of a frying pan. I step through the gap and see a wall of flames behind the stove, and Wendy is fanning the flames with a smoldering dishtowel and kicking the smoking pan across the floor and away from the wall with her foot. She sees me and drops the dishtowel onto the pan, and rushes to me and picks me up and opens the kitchen door in a seamless motion. I don’t think we had a fire alarm, or at least I don’t recall hearing one, but neighbors flock out in bathrobes and we hear sirens. Soon, firefighters have extinguished the fire. Almost all of the apartment complex is outside, staring and gossipping. Wendy’s face stays sad, like when she talked about deductables, and she avoids eye contact with our neighbors as she tries to answer their questions without providing details about us. We walk to Debbies, where I gorge on fortune cookies and handfulls of Raisenettes from a 1 lb bag Debbie’s mom opened for us. I show Debbie the trick with my dollar bill. She’s impressed, but doesn’t want me to teach it to her – she says magicians keep secrets, and I could practice doing that.

We spend the night sleeping on Debbie’s living room floor. Her mom and Cindi – the Cindi whom Wendy would want to add as an executor 40 years later – were arguing and shouting. Her little brother was sitting quietly, waiting for the storm to pass. Cindi and always yelled with Debbie and their mom, and even when laughing their mom was as loud as most people’s loudest shout, a high pitched shrill that bordered on cackling. We barely sleep. The next morning, Wendy drops me off at PawPaw’s. I’m no longer wearing my BeeGee’s shirt, because it smelled like smoke. I don’t recall what I’m wearing. She reminds me that magicians keep secrets. I tell MawMaw about all the fortune cookies and Raisinettes we ate at Debbie’s; it wasn’t a lie, because in my mind that was the most interesting part. I had seen plenty of fires and firemen and sirens, but I had never had so many fortune cookies and Raisenettes before, not even at Halloween, and that’s what stuck in my mind. I did the dollar trick, and MawMaw was even more impressed than Debbie. She understood that I shouldn’t tell her how it was done.

By my next visit, Wendy had moved in with Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob in their fine home in Sherwood Forest subdivision, near the Sherwood Forest country club and in front of Westminister Elementary school. I had been registered at Belaire Elementary, across Florida Buelevard in Belaire subdivision, but with Wendy no longer living there it made sense to find what Uncle Bob had called a good school. Belaire subdivison was in the news a lot back then because of kids being shot by Vietnam veterans; after the war, Southern Vietnamese from the French settled regions moved to Baton Rouge for the similar shrimp and seafood industry of southern Vietnam, and they settled around Belaire in what was called Little Saigon. Americans say the end of our involvement was 1975, and vets settled back home in areas they could afford, like the apartments Wendy and the LeBeuaxs lived in. I start staying at Uncle Bob’s all week, walking with Auntie Lo to Kindergarten classes at Westminister, only a few blocks away and visible across the drainage creek in our back yard. I still have my cast, and I don’t talk about it with anyone. Auntie Lo says I was probably just being clumsy when running, and that’s probably true. I don’t talk with any kids, I just say that I fell running. I don’t run with them, and watch them as they just laugh and run around and play in the sandbox. Nothing fun, I think. I’d rather climb something. I’d be bored except that I like Mrs. Foutneaux, and she likes me and laughs and tells other teachers that I know the lyrics to Janis Joplin songs and the song about Saturday in the Park, and I can hum the BeeGees. And I seem to be pretty good at drawing and painting. And I like books. I talk to her nonstop, I’m just not chatty around kids. She never asks questions that make me get quiet and ponder if I can answer or not, and she lets me borrow books from her bookshelf whenever I want. I’m so busy with Kindergarten that I barely notice time passing.


A few weeks into school, my cast is removed. A month or so after that, my dad comes to pick me up. Christmas is approaching. Uncle Bob says my dad will take me overnight and bring me home on Christmas day, and they’ll save opening presents for when I’m there.

Uncle Bob won’t let my dad near the carport, and Auntie Lo doesn’t stand in the door. Wendy walks me out, but is wearing her frown and her usually crinkly eyes are narrowed like my dad’s when he’s upset. She perks up when Ann jumps out and runs over to us, loving on both of us and creating associations of family deep in my neurons: when Ann was around, I felt the most loved and felt, though I didn’t know the words or emotions yet. Wendy thinks my dad named Ann after her – Wendy Anne Rothdram. I never tell Wendy that Ann’s named after Ann in Where the Red Fern Grows. My dad didn’t tell me it was a secret, but when he told me the story about Billy and his two redbone hounds hunting raccoons in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, he talked about Dan and Ann while we played with Ann. I grew to feel like Billy and his family were like hearing stories of my own family, and I liked having a secret family that didn’t make anyone upset.

My dad barks at Ann to get in the car. I don’t recall which type of car, but it was old and unremarkable in sound and smelled like Ann and pot. I climb into the passenger seat. My dad has a bristly black beard, and he scratches it and tells me he’s becoming a mountain man. He says we’ll move to the Ozark Mountains one day. Would you like that, son? Of course I would. I could chase raccoons up trees with Ann, just like Billy. He beams. He tells me again he’s only read one book in his life, and that Where the Red Fern Grows is the best book of all and that’s why he remembers it. He says he’ll tell it to me again the next time I stay overnight. He never had television and would tell me a chapter a night before bed, which is partly why I felt Billy and his family were like my family. I tell him I’d like that.

We drive for about two joints and chat about this and that. I play with Ann most of the time. She hops into my lap and sticks her face out the window and laps the air, and I make my hand fly like superman and sometimes snag her tongue with my fingers, just to make her shake her head and send drool spattering on the back window. My dad shows me how to use both fingers to push play on the big 8-track buttons, and he taps his fingers on the steering wheel and, despite the joint dangling from his lips, sings along with the BeeGees. I hum my best, and catch a few new words here and there. We arrive at False River and hop out at Aunt Reece’s home in front of her fishing pier.

Aunt Janice opens the door and shouts over her shoulder that its Edward and Jason. She beams at us and says it’s good to see us. Ann hops out and loves on Janice, though Janice is less loving back and doesn’t even bend down to kiss Ann. She squats way down to hug me, and tells me I’ve grown. She always says that. She’s as tall as my dad, and has our eyes. She and my dad don’t hug. She invites us inside.

The living room is packed with more women than I’ve ever seen huddled together. Janice, my aunts Cynthia and Theresa, Aunt Recee in her wheelchair, Aunt Mildred and Aunt Wanda, both with grey hair and done in a style that looks remarkably like George Washington’s on the dollar bill, Mamma Jean and her maroon hair that’s more red than mine, done in a perfect wavy style that holds its shape despite me never catching nary of a whif of hairspray like the cans MawMaw uses every morning. And Tiffany, thankfully. Besides Cynthia and Theresa, all of the women have Mamma Jean’s eyes. Ann tries to love all of them, but Mamma Jean or one of my aunts – I don’t recall which – tells my dad that it would be better if Ann stayed tied up in the back yard. My dad begins to protest in his serious voice, and Tiffany responds by grabbing my hand and leading me to her and Janice’s room to play. I tell her I’m in Kindergarten now, and she tells me about the first grade. We draw some things and stack some blocks and have a grand time. Tiffany says Mamma Jean cut her hair. I say it looks nice. She says Mamma Jean’s the best hair stylist in all of Houston! I don’t know where Houston is, but I’ve heard people exclaim that PawPaw’s the best tree surgeon in all of Louisiana, so I assume it’s a state. I say I’d like a haircut. Tiffany says Mamma Jean always gives haircuts in Houston, and has a chair at Aunt Reece’s for when family gets together. She’s sure Mamma Jean will cut my hair.

Mamma Jean comes in less than a dog’s tail wag later and says, Jason, I’d like to cut your hair. Mamma Jean has a tone of voice that left little room for arguing. Tiffany giggles. I stand up and follow Mamma Jean to the garage. Ann and my dad were outside; as I mentioned, Mamma Jean’s voice left little room for debate.

Aunt Reece had a fancy garage with a car that her husband, who was deceased by then, had built and put a van inside with pulleys and levers like Brian the one handed drug dealer’s motorcycle. But, she said she never drives it any more, and she’s not even trying. She was Mamma Jean’s aunt, and older than anyone I knew; or, at least she seemed that way with the lifelong rheumitoid arthritis having whittled her away to a sweet, smiling, wrinkled shell. She never complained about being in a wheelchair, unlike cousin Don, who never stopped complaining about it and having to pee in a tube. Aunt Reece simply smiled and asked how other people were doing and listened to the answers; that’s what stood out in my mind, that she paused to listen, and when she prayed she did it silently, probably listening more than talking. Though she never drove, she said the garage was now mostly for Mamma Jean’s barber chair during family get-togethers, and that made her smile. The chair was between Aunt Reece’s car and the wall attached to the house, with a big mirror and bookshelf full of shampoos and combs and shears.

Mamma Jean had converted the shoe washing sink by the door into a hair washing sink with a raised u-shaped attachment to rest your neck and keep your head at least partially raised. She leans my head back and washes my hair and talks with me, mostly about my dad and his long and unkept hair and that scraggly beard. She asks what I’m learning in school. I tell her how Mrs. Founteneaux is my girlfriend and I’m going to marry her, and that she says I’m the most talented artist she’s ever seen at my age. Mamma Jean laughs and tells me how smart I am, just like Tiffany. She talks about how good Tiffany is in school for a while and I listen while Mamma Jean lathers and rinses my hair. She sits me up and rubs a towel over my head, and moves me in her barber chair. She whips out an apron and snaps it like a bull figher snapping a cape to entice a bull. It drifts slowly down and covers my lap. She whirls me around to face the wall mirror. I look like a superhero with a cape on backwards. I see her in the mirror, peering at the back of my head, and I feel her fingers parting the back of my hair and poking around like a bird searching for a worm.

Hmmph, she exclaims. She’s stopped at my hair. She says, You have thick hair, just like your daddy. It hides that scar well.

I see her squint and bring her head closer to mine. Hmmph, she says again. She leans back and says there are more little scars. She asks what that Mr. White did with me, but keeps talking without waiting for an answer. I see her lean back and look this way and that at a spot on my head, and she says she doesn’t remember that dent. It couldn’t be new, she says, and she wonders about Mr. White again. I reach up and feel where she’s parted. It’s not a dent, it’s more like a raised swoop that I’ve had as long as I could remember, but I don’t say anything. Something about Mamma Jean led you to speak only when asked. Not that she was mean or anything, she was just assured of everything she said and did. If I had known the words, I would have said she radiated confidence and self-reliance, and that people who radiate that seem to make other people speak only when confident. I wasn’t confident – there were too many women in that house, and they all smelled nice in that they barely smelled at all, unlike my dad and me who smelled like Ann and pot.

Snip snip snip, like snap crackle and pop, Mamma Jean was a wizard with her shears. She moved as deftly as Big Daddy with his elk-knife, and soon she was rotating me around to show me all sides. She held a mirror for me to see the back, and ruffled my hair and showed me how the scar didn’t show.

Tell your momma to tell your barber to use thinning shears, she told me in the serious voice she seemed to use 99.99% of the time.

You have thick hair, and thinning shears will help it lie down and cover that scar.

I said I would, but I didn’t worry much about it. I never saw the scar, it was like the back of my BeeGee’s shirt, and I hadn’t thought much about it. I did, however, feel the scar under my hair for the first time I remember, and relished in the different texture between my sticky hairy head and the bald and slick scar with its raised bumps, a habit I would keep for decades. She whips off the backwards super cape, and I hop down and rush back to where Tiffany and Janice were sleeping and Tiffany was still playing. A few minutes later, my dad barges in and takes Ann and says he’s going fishing with her and will be back by dinner. He asks me if I want to come, and I tell him no, I want to stay with Tiffany. He leaves and we draw some more. Both of us remember our alligator vs crocodile debate, and we recreate that scene. Both of us are better than we were. In my mind, we high-five, though that’s unlikely because I didn’t know about high-fives back then; we probably celebrated however a 5 and 6 year old celebrate shared memories and new awareness together.

Janice comes in and says we’re in for a treat, we get to cook with Mamma Jean! Tiffany’s excited. She says Mamma Jean’s the best cook in Houston. She wrote a cookbook and everything! I follow her past the dining room table that was remarkably uncluttered and into the kitchen. Mamma Jean’s wearing an apron, and she shakes kid-size aprons for Tiffany and me, similar to how she snapped the hair cutting apron, but with less snap!, probably because they were cotton instead of plastic. We look like professional chefs. I notice the lack of a stepping stool and that Tiffany’s taller than I am, but I say nothing.

Big Daddy loved my catfish, Mamma Jean says in her serious voice. She smiles and chuckles and changes to her whimsical voice, and says, I made dinner for my first suitor, but he didn’t like seafood so he had to go. But Big Daddy had three helpings.

She smiles and pauses, staring back in time. Now I’ll show you and you can show your children. Keith caught these fish this morning, and skinned them for us before he went over to your Grandma Foster’s for dinner. Her face went serious for a moment, then she smiled again and said, I’ve been soaking them in milk all afternoon. That’s what makes them smell clean and stay moist.

We proceed to stir some eggs, dry the filets, dredge them in eggs then in a cornmeal and flour mixture, and set them on a cookie-cooling rack to set. We get peanut oil hot in a big cast iron gumbo pot and Mamma Jean has us stand way back. She rests each filet into the simmering oil with the care of a wet nurse putting babies to bed. She says the trick is to be patient and not crowd the pot. It’s like us in the kitchen, just the right amount of people focused on frying fish.

All the while, ladies are coming in and out of the far side of Aunt Reece’s kitchen, near the big open area facing the dining table. They don’t disturb us while we’re frying fish, and they carry trays of food and pile them across the previously uncluttered dining room table. Tiffany and I remove our aprons and join everyone at the table, and Mamma Jean follows with a paper towel lined kitchen pan with a layer of steaming fried catfish filets, spaced them on the paper towels like they had in the pot the spaced to keep them crunchy. I’m sitting between Tiffany and my dad. We’re the only two men. The women chat while passing trays and bowls around. When our plates are full, my dad and I automatically dump catsup on Mamma Jean’s fish, hold a filet in our hands, lower our heads, and begin devouring bites that were barely cooled by the thick red catsup that slowly oozed off and dripped on our plates.

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

I think I know what that means. I put down my filet and swallow. My dad keeps eating.

Edward. Mamma Jean says. Everyone’s waiting to say grace.

He mumbles something and sets down his fillet and keeps chewing. He has flakes of batter and drops of catsup in his beard. Someone says he has food in his beard, and he vigorously wipes his hand back and forth across his mouth. The flakes are still there, but in different curls. No one says anything.

Everyone holds hands. He’s holding Janice’s and mine. I hold his and Tiffany’s. Janice says the Lord’s Prayer, and then thanks the Lord for all of their family being there, and for Keith catching and sharing the catfish even though he wouldn’t stay with us and went to dinner elsewhere, Edward being there and bringing me, and for me being safe. And she wished Aunt Reece happiness, and said that we knew the Lord gave her rhemutoid arthritis for a reason. And she thanked the Lord for Tiffany doing well in school. She asked the Lord to help Uncle Tim stop drinking. She asked for Big Daddy to be kept safe and found innocent, and went on to pray that the Lord protect practically every Partin in the phone book, one by one, starting with all the Don’s and Donald’s and Douglas’s. I think she missed blessing Wendy, but I was so delirious from hunger by then that I could have missed it. When the ladies all finally said Amen, my dad and I leaned over and tore into our dinners.

My catsup covered catfish had become room temperature during Janice’s long list of prayers, but it was still delicious. I was enjoying eating when Mamma Jean says, Jason! A gentleman doesn’t bend over to eat his food like a dog eating from a bowl. A gentleman sits upright and brings his food to his mouth with a fork. I try it. It’s not as fun, but I see Tiffany doing it and I keep doing it. My dad doesn’t. Mamma Jean stares at him and hmmphs! and goes back to eating with a fork.

I fumble with cutting the long green beans in half; they were fresh and crunchy and only barely cooked – blanched, Mamma Jean had said – but MawMaw’s had been soft and squishy and from a can and fell apart easily. All of Mamma Jean’s food was delicious, better than any other food, even MawMaw’s cookies. But, man! it took a lot of work to eat. Tiffany shows me tips and tricks for using a knife and fork while all the adults chat about things I don’t recall. After another helping of the sweet potatoe casserole – it was tasty to eat and I could easily eat it with a spoon – the ladies clear the table and bring out clean little plates and spoons, and Mamma Jean walks out carrying a thick tray of yellow goo with tiny waves like tossing a rock into a pond, with slices of white banana and orange cookies poking out here and there. Everyone ooh’s and ahh’s, and Tiffany says this is Mamma Jean’s famous banana pudding. It was so good that I wondered why Janice hadn’t thanked God for it, and why we didn’t just start dinner with banana pudding.

After dinner, Janice says that Santa Claus left something for my dad and me. She says she and Tiffany made me something, too. It’s all wrapped under the tree. My dad makes noises not unlike Mamma Jean’s hmmph’s, and follows us as Tiffany and I dart to the tree, me anxious for a gift and Tiffany anxious to show what she had helped make. We open that one before the one from Santa. It’s a black and white drawing of a boy flying a kite. It’s in an 8X10 frame. To hang on the wall, Janice said. Tiffany adores it. I stare at it, wondering what’s so special. Janice must see me staring, and she points out that it’s made of tiny letters that spell my name, Jason Ian Partin Jason Ian Partin Jason Ian Partin, written so closely that they looked like shaded coloring at first. Tiffany says she helped draw the boy and kite, and her momma wrote my name to color it in. She said I always talked about playing in the park with my mom, and she imagined me flying a kite and having fun and that’s why she drew me with a kite. You’re family, Janice said. You’re Jason Ian Partin, and this will always remind you of that no matter where you are. I saw the framed drawing in a new light. It was beautiful art, and I clung to it.

My dad and I each have a present from Mamma Jean: her cookbook. Well, not hers, but her churches. She contributed her recipes for fried catfish, oatmeal raisin cookies, and banana pudding. They sell them in Houston for charity, Mamma Jean said, and everyone in the room already has one and now we do, too. I cling to that, too. I didn’t know I was related to a famous author.

Janice gives my dad and me our gifts from Santa Claus. They’re brown King James bibles about the size of my print, and with each of our names embroissed in small gold print across the front of our copies. Mamma Jean says something about the meaning of Christmas, and my dad’s eyebrows narrow and his serious voice says he doesn’t want to hear any of that. Janice says something and he raises his voice at her. Mamma Jeans tells him to lower his voice and he raises it even more at her. Janice says something and my dad turns and points his finger at her face and shouts that she can shove that bible up her ass! Mamma Jeans shouts, Edward! That’s enough! It’s time for you to leave. Again: she has a type of voice that one just obeys. My dad shouts we’re getting the fuck out of there, and he grabs my hand and drags me out. I barely have time to grab my framed drawing and say a hasty goodbye to Tiffany and Janice. He calls to Ann – he must have left her untied – and she follows with her head hung low and tail between her legs. He opens the back passenger seat and she hops in. He struts around to the drivers side.

Edward, wait, Mamma Jean calls out. He pauses by his side of the car, breathing deeply. His chest heaves in and out. Mamma Jean walks up to him and looks up into his eyes and speaks softly. He calms down. She hands him a plain grocery store paper bag and says it has leftovers. She then hands him what I see as folded magic dollar bills, a whole bunch of them so the the fold was thick. It works its magic, and his head lowers and he mumbles something to her and they hug. She walks around to me and squats and hugs me and tells me to ask my dad to bring me to Houston, so she can cut my hair in her salon. I say okay and hop in the car.

Two joints later we’re at my dad’s house, the one near the Comite River where police found the Teamster’s safe and the bodies.3 It’s practically empty, just a mattress in his room and in mine, dog bowls for Ann, stacks of guns for hunting and trips to the garden, and a few of Big Daddy’s fancy fishing rods and reels. I ask if Santa will bring more presents. My dad says Santa Claus is bullshit, just like Jesus Christ and all that other shit those women tried to shove down our throats. I say Santa’s real: he gave us those presents we forgot. Bullshit! my dad bellows. He points his finger at my face; I know that means to stop talking. He says they say that to shovel that shit at us and lie to us. That’s what’s bullshit, he says. To lie and then hand you a bible and tell you it’s all you need. He’ll prove it! Watch. When we wake up, there won’t be any presents. That will mean there’s no Santa Claus and no Jesus. That sounds fair, and I go to sleep believing my dad will be surprised by gifts from Santa.

The next morning my dad’s calm and we talk about not finding presents. He says people lie to me, but he never will. I believe him. He says that anyone who tells me to believe in Santa or Jesus or any of the bullshit they’re saying about Big Daddy is lying. I say okay. He repeats himself in a more serious voice and pointing his finger. I nod yes. He tells me he loves me and hugs me. I hug him back and tell him I love him too. We eat leftover bananna pudding and sweet potato casserole for breakfast. Ann wolfs down the left over and soggy catfish. We leave without me washing my hands or brushing my teeth.

My dad drops me off at Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo’s. It’s only a joint away. He leaves without coming in. Ann’s taken my seat next to him. I turn around and walk inside without receiving any shugga’. I never tell anyone that Santa and Jesus aren’t real, because that’s something I know and share with my dad, like his secret garden and stories about how we’ll one day hunt with in the Ozark Mountains, just like in the book he reads to me purely from memory.

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  1. Re-reading my 1976 custody report, I see a glaring mistake. Judge JJ Lottinger quoted Judge Pugh as saying Wendy had a fine home. Whether or not a home is fine is statement, but I can’t imagine anyone in America calling Wendy’s first home fine. It was a rat infested shithole that smelled like old rotting fried Chinese food sweltering in a muggy Baton Rouge summer, which is exactly what that dumpster was and it faced our front door. The rats would come in to cool off when the dumpster smell got too bad for them. The complex was crawling and buzzing with the big, two-inch flying and hissing cockroaches that had made their way from a Miami port over a few years. You could hear cars zooming by on Florida Blvd from the open windows, family’s quarelling, and something that could only have been aggressive sex. We sweltered, because it had no air conditioning or even ceiling fans, which is probably a good thing because it kept the rats out on all but the muggiest of days. But, her rat infested shithole met Judge Pugh’s requirements for Wendy having her own home and me having my own room. I always thought it was funny that everyone was okay with me sleeping on PawPaw’s couch, but Wendy had to afford a two-bedroom apartment for me to live with her. ↩︎
  2. This is a classic impromtu dollar bill trick, and the climax is less important than how Wendy started it. She nonchalantly brought my attention to the direction of George Washington’s head and ensured I saw it as it was. The great magican, watchsmith, and war hero, Robert Houdin, wrote something like: if you’re going to change an apple to an orange, first make sure everyone know’s it’s an apple. Had Wendy rushed – like she did driving – I wouldn’t have noticed George’s orientation, and the trick would have fallen flat. ↩︎
  3. Around the time I was born and Wendy and I were still living in that house, police discovered the Baton Rouge Teamsters Local #5 safe at the bottom of the murky river near our house, under the two lane concrete bridge that passed over it. It was empty, but had once held $450,000 in local Teamster cash. No fingerprints were found, and the cash was never recovered. The two witnesses who fingered Big Daddy were found beaten and bloody. The survivor refused to testify. The court case stalled until Jimmy Hoffa vanished in 1975, then accelerated. While my story was going on, the Baton Rouge district attorney had set his sites on Big Daddy and a team of prosecutors was building cases against him for theft and racketeering. A jury found him guilty. Big Daddy was in appeals all of this time, hence coming back from Flagstaff and being a bit touchy whenever my dad poked his finger up into Big Daddy’s smiling face, and why Janice prayed for him. To my knowledge, regardless of who was responsible, she never prayed for the two men beaten bloody, or for the family of the one who died. ↩︎