Mrs. Barbee B. Abrams
Those who hope in the LordIsaiah 40:31
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Princess Leah and I were by ourselves on the balcony sipping coffee from James’s coffee shop around the corner when Cranky Ken walked up and handed me a book.
“Here,” he said, and I looked down at him and the book in his hand and, once again, contemplated moving to a balcony higher above the sidewalk, or facing the ocean instead of Balboa Park. But, I enjoyed the sunsets and Ken only came around once a week or so to get quarters from the laundry rooms of his buildings.
I took the book, In Hoffa’s Shadow, wondering why I kept telling Ken to keep the copies I gave him; I had already ordered another copy from Amazon and had marked it up with my pen and given it back to I looked at Leah with a look that said, “Enjoy your coffee; I’ll explain later.” We had known each other for approaching forty years, and could communicate without speaking. I wondered if I could accelerate that gift with other people.
“It’s really good,” Ken said. “Real good. Best I’ve read in years. I always thought Chucky drove the car. I was wrong. This was a good book. And Pecci did a good job playing Chucky in The Irishman.”
I agreed that it had been the best book on Hoffa I had read in a long time, and I told Ken I was having a cup of hot coffee with a friend in town for Comic Con.
“Yeah. Hey. I’m Ken. Nice to meet ya.”
He was sincere, and I saw that Leah saw that and she smiled curtly and mentioned how nice it was to relax on the balcony with a cup of hot coffee. We were used to ignoring arbitrary social norms and trying to see someone for who they really are, and both tried to provide social cues as kindly as possible. Ken was a nice guy, at heart. He was just a night owl, like me and a lot of my friends, and he didn’t have as many friends. I’m lucky.
“I laughed when I read what chucky had to say about your granddad. What was it… Damn, it was a good line…”
I smiled, too. Chucky was a little, pudgy guy. Fearless, loyal, and probably decent with a snub nose pistol, but he looked more like a pug than a pit bull. Early in the trial, he had tackled a guy with a gun that turned out to only be a BB gun, but no one knew it at the time and little pudgy Chucky hurled himself between the gun and his stepfather and tackled the gunman and almost beat him to death before courtroom security reached them. But, as fierce as Chucky was, Big Daddy could have easily flung him across the room and taken out a few of the bigger guys, too.
I had never met Chucky, and I don’t think he would have had nice things to say to me, but even before I read In Hoffa’s Shadow I kinda liked the guy. I admire tenacious loyalty, even in people trying to kill my family.
A lot of Hoffa’s men said they’d kill Big Daddy after he testified against Hoffa. It was blatant and overt. Hoffa was more mild, and after the prosecutors called a surprise witness and Big Daddy stood up Hoffa simply said, “Damn. It’s Partin.” I’ve always thought that told a lot, if you think about it and read a few books about Hoffa and his lieutenants.
I completed Ken’s thought: “Fucking Partin. I should have killed him when I had the chance.”
“Yeah, that was it. Good book. I gotta go. Enjoy your coffee.”
I was pleasantly surprised that he left, and I rested the book on the table and enjoyed a hot coffee; it was a fair trade lightly roasted Yergacheffe Ethiopian from their freshly roasted beans, and Leah and I had stayed up all night chatting and were enjoying a cup of coffee before everyone else woke up. She, unlike me, had wanted cream, and we had gone for a quick walk to the convenience store to get some, especially because I liked showing her the Little Free Library I had donated there, and the quaint old pedestrian bridge connecting Banker’s Hill to Balboa Park, and we had just returned and had walked and talked longer than expected. We had plopped back down and she had leaned her cane against the railing, and that’s when Ken walked up with a book in his hand and quarters jingling in his pocket. We were tired and I felt grumpy, and I was grateful Cranky Ken hadn’t lingered too long.
“He seemed nice,” she said, sincerely. “What did he mean about the car?”
“Chucky O’Brien was Hoffa’s stepson and right hand man, sort of. It’s a long story. But, to cut to the chase, for decades, the FBI and a lot of news and movies believed Chucky drove Hoffa to his death. The evidence was pretty strong, but they never got a conviction, and Chucky denied it all his life, practically falling apart in tears as he saw himself portrayed inaccurately in movies and demonized by the media. I’m glad he’s finding peace. Ken was right; it’s a good book. I never thought Chucky could do it; I had seen photos of him with Hoffa, and he looked like me looking at Mrs. Abrams.”
“First of all,” I said, “It’s written by Chucky’s stepson, who’s now a big shot lawyer, so it’s a story within a story, one about their relationship, and one about Chucky’s and Jimmy’s. The lawyer and Chuckie had been estranged for decades, but they began reconnecting while he researched the book. In the end, you like Chucky. You empathize with someone who grew up rough and was adopted and felt loved; he loved Hoffa. You feel compassion for him and grieve his loss, and see how it must have felt to live like a pauper while Pecci and a long list of actors portrayed you and some even portrayed you as killing your stepfather for the mob.”
I let that sit with Leah for a moment, then continued. “Like Ken said, it’s well written. It felt more like a memoir with emotions and characters than a long list of boring facts. And in the end, the lawyer does the work and reconnects with the current FBI agent responsible for investigating Hoffa’s disappearance – almost 50 years later, can you believe it! – and the lawyer reanalyzes the data and shows that Chucky couldn’t have driven Hoffa. We had a lot of phone records and receipts from the fish Chucky was driving around, and the car probably had Chucky’s scent and DNA but that’s only because he drove Hoffa around so often. In the end, the lawyer stepson vindicated his stepfather, who had always loved his stepfather.”
I paused again and checked in; she seemed content sipping her coffee. Mine was done, but I was feeling momentum and didn’t want to break and grind more beans for another pour-over, so I continued, feeling the weight of staying up all night but fueled by the energy you get from seeing close friends you only get to see once a year or two. Leah and I had spent many nights in high school talking on the phone until sunrise, and, in a way, we were still there while we chatted on the balcony.
“But, what’s funny is that the lawyer was a high level lawyer on President Bush’s advisory team after 9/11, and Big Daddy’s spread passim throughout the book, obviously because of the trial and Chucky’s thoughts on everything, but also because the lawyer used Big Daddy’s testimony and the Hoffa vs The United States to justify Bush’s surveillance of millions of American cell phones without due process. I mean, I knew that it had been used to justify other paid informants and controversial wire tapping, but because Big Daddy wasn’t bugged, the lawyer team somehow justified secretly monitoring all Americans.”
I paused and raised my eybrows and smiled back and raised just one of hers, and instantly I felt I was 14 and chatting with my first girlfriend again.
She made a few comments and asked for clarification, but she knew that the Partin family was considered America’s first family of paid informants, their names public instead of changed, like in a witness protection program. Even if someone had tried to change their names, all of America knew what they looked like by then and Big Daddy was instantly recognizable, because he was trumpeted as “Everybody’s All American,” probably to soften the almost 3 million Teamsters who were loyal to Hoffa; no presidential candidate would want 3 million voters believing they railroaded a beloved leader into prison, and they needed America to believe Big Daddy was a trustworthy man, willing to risk his life to protect the integrity of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and jury tampering was illegal and wrong, and then J. Edgar Hoover came out with the lie detector tests and revealed half of the report on Hoffa and Big Daddy, that Hoffa wanted to kill Bobby and possibly his wife and children, too, by tossing plastic explosives into their home. No one could hide with all of that coverage, and they needed that coverage to prevent the Teamsters from getting too worked up. And as for Mamma Jean, she was gorgeous and remarkable to everyone who saw her, and she was active in her church and running a hair saloon from the house Bobby had bought for her. But, because she was in Houston and had never appeared in media or answered any questions posed, she seemed to stay under the radar and keep to herself and raise her children, saying “God works in mysterious ways” and nothing more.
But, what most people didn’t realize, even the FBI and Teamsters and mid-level mafia guys back then, is that Big Daddy wasn’t in danger. Hoffa needed him alive to recant; if someone killed Big Daddy, Hoffa would have to server the entire eight yeras, but if Big Daddy recanted Hoffa would be set free. The real threat, Big Daddy knew, was to his family. In other words, the Teamsters and mafia would target his family, probably starting with Doug, and try to intimidate my grandfather into recanting his testimony. He didn’t, and the attacks progressed, and he was stabbed and shot a few times, and Janice and Mamma Jean saw a lot of his blood and that probably traumatized them, and Doug would expound on how none of them were safe from his big brother, especially after Hoffa blew up his son’s house, according to Doug and Donald, even though Donald had been in a wheelchair and was uninvolved with the Teamsters.
“I keep reimagining my dad,” I told Leah. “And Jancie and Kieth. I still don’t know the others well, but I’m rethinking all of them and rough it must have been. It’s no wonder they’re fucked up. And then to see people begin targeting Big Daddy’s name, pursuing his possible drug addiction and mistrisses and digging up the rape and all of that stuff. It must have been horrible. I still don’t know how to separate nature from nurture with them.”
Leah agreed emphatically, and said she had stopped reenvisioning them, too. She had met my dad a couple of times, and knew how intense and angry he came across. We had no doubt that he suffered from PTSD more than I had after fighting in a war and wrestling Hillary Clinton.
“So what are you going to do about it?” She asked.
“I’m going to make another pour over for us,” I said, standing up and collecting coffee cups and trying not to trip over Leah’s cane. “And I’m going to try to honor my mother and father. In a way, that’s what the book’s really about.”
She looked like she wanted to say something, and she rested her hand on my wrist holding her cup, and she said, “We allways stop by Mike’s cage and see Miss Barbee’s brick.”
My jaw instantly tightened, and my eyes squinted and my lip trembled, and Leah kept her hand on my wrist and continued, “Every time. Every game. We took our entire family last time, and we talked about her and how much she meant to so many people. Everyone loves Mike the Tiger’s new home, and we always begin by walking to the brick you laid down for her.”
I turned away abruptly and went inside and grinded the hell out of those beans.
Big Head Ben and I returned from our road trip early one morning after having driven all night from Nashville. Ben was high on Diet Pepsi’s and we kept talking about having seen Cindi Crawford on David Letterman, and Mrs. Abrams greeted us with open arms and expressions of love. We hastily unloaded the car and showered off a few days of road grime and collapsed and slept for a while.
Mrs. Abrams had made a bed for me on the couch. Todd was still living at home, and so was their little brother, Erik The Viking, but both were in summer music programs and would return soon, so their rooms remained for them. Ben was in his bed, and Mrs. Abrams had been sleeping alone ever since Mr. Abrams had passed away before our summer road trip. But, even before then, Mr. Abrams had been on the couch or his recliner for almost nine months, dying slowly from AIDS, and for a brief moment I felt a twinge of something like fear; we were pretty sure HIV was only commicable by blood ro sex and semen, which is why inevitable tears in the anus from anal sex spread it so easily. She sensed my unease and asked if I’d like to stay in one of the boy’s beds until they could replace the couch.
“No, thank you,” I said. “I’m good. I’m just tired. You know how I get.”
“Welcome home, Magik,” she said. We embraced and I squeezed and thanked her again, for so many things.
It was August 14th, coincidentally Wendy’s birthday. She lived two miles away. I was leaving for basic training in three weeks.
Ben began studying math education at LSU and lived in a dorm and was busy acclimating to college life for the next two weeks, and Todd and Erik were staying overnight at their camps and would not return until just before their respective high schools would start. Todd would be a senior at Belaire, and Erik would be a freshman at Scotlandville Magnet for the Engineering Professions. Mrs. Abrams was prepping her classroom, and I joined her and we chatted as she put in practically full work days setting up things for kids who probably never knew how much effort she put into her room and lesson plans. Friends at Belaire told me her classroom felt safe and welcoming, and that they learned a lot, especially math, which was rare to hear from a fifth grade class. I couldn’t recall anything I learned in fifth grade, except perhaps my Miranda Rights, and that three to four big bullies is greater than one little weird kid named Fartin’ Partin.’
Mrs. Abrams never probed with questions. I’d read a few leadership books later in life, like “Seven Habits of Effective People,” and I saw that was a trend that countered books like “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and I’d always recall how Mrs. Abrams only asked questions to clarify what I had volunteered, or to help me understand something I was asking her. She created a safe space, free from judgement, and never, never reacted emotionally to anything I said. Of course, she shouted and yelled at Todd a lot, but Todd was a handful and not processing his dad’s death and his mom’s inevitable, slow, painful, gruesome death well. None of us were. But Todd was more overt in his rebellion, and he had become obsessed with having sex with every girl in Baton Rouge, probably to prove that he wasn’t a homosexual to everyone, even himself. Erik had always been quiescent, more introspective and selective with his words, and his response had been to focus on his Eagle Scout project to honor all the good things he remembered about his dad, and Ben had vanished on a five week road trip with me and then rushed off to LSU. Mrs. Abrams hadn’t heard much about our trip yet.
I helped her organize her classroom, and I asked her a lot about teaching. I was curious what made her stand out to friends who had taken her class.
“I don’t know, Magik,” she said to a question I don’t recall. That was a typical way she answered things; she never knew for sure why she did anything.
“I never know why I do anything. I try to do it with love, and let things work out for the best. I try to do that at home, but it’s been hard since Al died and the boys left and Todds…” she trailed off, and her eyes showed sadness, and I began to see her anew.
I hadn’t considered that before: she suffered. I had been there so much as a guest and helping with Mr. Abrams that I hadn’t considered that someone else had been as sad as I had felt after caring for Uncle Bob and watching him die. I had given his eulogy, full of jokes and puns, and had even opened with his request to tow a U-Haul behind his hearse so that everyone would say he was taking it with him, but I quickly spiraled off script and rambled and began bawling. My stepdad’s mom, Mrs. Richard, was the only one who could calm me by letting me cry into her old, physically large Cajun body that smelled like a light roux and shrimp boiled with either Tony Chaceries or Zatarans. I had cried and cried, and then I was angry that Wendy had had another nervous breakdown and said I’d have to leave as soon as I graduated and make it on my own at 17, just like she had at 16, and that Uncle Bob had let her down and that I was just like my dad and I had ruined her life. Leah drove me from Uncle Bob’s to the 19th judicial court house to file emancipation paperwork, and I joined the army as soon as Judge Browning singed and stamped my form, and then she drove me to the recruiting office and I joined the 82nd at 16. All of that resurfaced, and I realized that Mrs. Abrams felt just like Mrs. Richard, and that, perhaps, I could be there fore her like Mike’s mother had been there for me.
I said something to that effect, and, like I had, Mrs. Abrams collapsed into my arms and began sobbing for a long, long time.
We spoke daily for the next two weeks, and I joined her classroom for the first week of school and met her kids and saw her in action and saw what my friends had experienced, probably never realizing all the love and effort she put in all summer long, ever summer, and then more love in long days of all the same kids in one classroom, then grading papers and preparing for the next day and then coming home to a dying husband and rebellious teenagers, and knowing that she, too, would die soon.
I began to see her differently. I began to feel gratitude, as much as I had felt for Coach and PawPaw and Mrs. Richard, and I wondered why it had taken me so long. I must have assumed she was a bottomless well, a spring that flowed endlessly. I was seeing that I had been mistaken, and I began pondering how many other people suffered in secret silence every day.
When she died in 1994, I donated $100 to the new Mike the Tiger cage being built between the Pete Mavirch basketball arena and Death Valley, which is what most of us called Tiger Stadium. The plans showed a beautiful design with lots of open space for Mike, and early donors could select a brick and have it engraved. I would always recall the weeks of conversations with Mrs. Abrams, and everyone already knew her most quoted scripture. When Ben and Leah and their grandchildren go to a LSU football game, they first stop by and see a brick hidden among hundreds that simply says:
I finished crying a bit and poured the gooseneck kettle slowly over the ground beans and sniffed the aroma to help change my thoughts to something more cheerful, and I brought our two half cups to the balcony with a bit of cream and sugar in one of them.
Leah blew on hers to cool it a bit and took a tentative sip and said, “We’ve never talked about what y’all talked about that summer.”
“It wasn’t long after that that I decided to not talk about religion,” I said, somewhat tired and not really listening to what she meant.
“I know,” she said, “but I’d like to know what she said that stuck in you so long. I can see it even today.”
“Well,” I said, and sipped my coffee. “It’s a long story. But I hear you. For now, it’s less about what she said and the books she gave me. I’m too tired now to explain, but I will the next time we chat. Everyone’ll be awake soon, anyway. One book is relevant to y’all and the Magic Castle, though.’
She raised an eyebrow. I had peaked her interest, and I felt a bit of pride. Usually, she knew my answers before I did.
“First of all, she was the first person I asked about the impending war. It was all over the news, and everyone was making such a big deal of Saddam’s chemical weapons, and the news showed images from WWII and the Holocast, trying to get people either scared or simply to empathize with what we’d be facing. And of course Iraq’s tank fleet was hyped, too. In short, I was sure I’d go to war and fight and die, and I was looking to people I admired or wanted to emulate for guidance on how to balance religion. I had no opinion at all, I simply felt that a common thread of the people I felt were more calm than my family was faith in some type of God, from Mr. Samuels and Dr. Zuckerman’s synagog to Mrs. Abrams home. We spoke a lot about the ten commandments, and of course “thou shall not kill,” and when I asked her about her never going to church and ‘keep the sabbath holy,’ she pulled one of her bibles of the shelf and showed me a quote she had underlined, something about wherever two or more people gather is church, and another about the blind leading the blind by repeating the words or going to church but not feeling the love or living the life.”
“Ha!” I chuckled. “When she showed me what she underlined in Matthew, apparently Jesus never rememebered all ten commandments, either, and only kept five or six that mattered. Including “honor thy mother and father.’ I laughed when she said that, and asked if she thought God had met my mother and father! And she laughed with me, and said she was lucky, that Oma and Opa were easy to love, but that she had been wondering how to help the boys honor their father who had just died of AIDS and had been a lier and adulterer, both biggies according to Jesus.
“She even cursed: ‘Magik, I never thought Al would cheat on me, especially with another man, and in the pooper.’ Ha! We then chatted about what that meant, and how she had never found an example in the new or old testament on what that meant, and then we talked about what words mean, and the blind leading the blind, and what Hope vs. Faith vs. Believe vs. Trust meant to her. We didn’t just use the words, we tried to understand the underlying difference.”
“I had even been cocky, quoting Granny’s contrasting books on Greek Mythology. One says Hope remained in Pandora’s box after the bad shit flew out as a gift from the gods; the other says Hope was the most cruel thing to leave with us, because Hope’s what keeps a boxer in the ring taking a beating when he should just retire and try again later. One group says Hope is good, the other says it keeps us trapped and lets the cruel gods laugh at our struggle against the inevitable. For Mrs. Abrams, the words were less important than the practical, and she read the bible for guidance for how to be happier, right then and there, like Jesus telling us to pray for forgiveness and to express gratitude, because feeling grateful and not harboring resentment is a healthier way to live. She believed that, because she had felt it before and had faith she’d feel it again. She trusted God, but never said what God was or that Jesus was his son. And she admitted she didn’t feel that she had forgiven Mr. Abrams yet. She was working on it, she said. Big by bit, day by day, with some setbacks. And she was doubting loving God, whatever that meant to her, and she had handed me a book of essays by… The Chronicals of Narnia guy, and in it he expresses his own inability to love as much as he professes his Christian spouting beavers did. But, unlike Hope, she wasn’t holding out for an unobtainable end goal. Everyone suffers, she said, and many become happy again. That was proof that it was possible, and she had faith/hope/believe/trust/whatever that a man named Jesus died 2,000 years ago so that we could read what he had to say today. And that’s why she had multiple copies of different translations, so that she wouldn’t become attached to one word or another based on another person’s translation or bias or agenda.”
“But, even with all that whatever, it was hard to be patient with Todd. All the boys were bickering with each other as they processed the year of going to school and faking and lying and coming home and not feeling enough energy from Mrs. Abrams, even when Oma and Opa came to help. Todd was – and is – harboring so much anger towards Mr. Abrams and his mom for seemingly not caring what he did, that she felt the best gift she could give Todd and the other boys was the ability to one day forgive Mr. Abrams. And her. Not for her sake, but for the boys’s.”
Leah sipped her coffee and wanted me to continue; she had a way of getting me to talk about things I said I wouldn’t talk about, and she was a good listener. She was perfect for Ben, I felt. I was glad they reconnected later in life.
I continued, “Do you remember the Star Trek episode where Picard lands on a planet with an alien captain who only speaks in their cultures literary references?”
“Yeah!” she said, surprised that it came to her so quickly. “When Picard began to figure it out, he said it was like us saying, ‘Juliet, on the balcony,’ and in order to understand what we meant, someone would have to have known about Romeo and Juliet and be able to envision what Juliet was experiencing at that moment.”
“Exactly!” I said, feeling the coffee and conversation kicking in. “I would ask questions, and she’d give me a book to read from her bookshelf. One was Chaim Polluck’s ‘The Chosen.’ Do you know it?”
“It’s a good book. It’s about Jewish families in New York immigrating after the Hollocost, but it’s really about communicating with someone you love deeply. Two kids are friends and struggling to adopt to American culture, like any teenager would, and one of their fathers, a rabbi, is old school and strict and he and his son fight; but, to his son’s frustration, the rabbi seems nicer to his friend and they do all the things together that the son wanted to do. Or, at least he sees his dad as friendlier to other kids than at home. It’s a good book, and at the end the father speaks mindlessly, or from a place of love, and seems to ramble on about God’s love, and it hints to the pain and suffering the rabbi must have felt after experiencing the hollocost and loosing all those people, and books like Eli Weisel’s night wouldn’t have been out yet, and no movies or anything existed about it yet, so the kids don’t know – not that any of us could, even now – but it turns out that he’s talking about how much he loves his son, and that the love overwhelms him and he doesn’t know what to do and so he’s simply doing his best and what he knows best, the Torah, and hoping that by spending time with his son’s friend, whom he doesn’t love as much and is therefore more open minded and relaxed, will remember what he’s been saying and share it with his son to help convey the deep love he feels. When I finished it, we chatted about it and she said that she believed God brought me into their family so that I could remind her sons how much she loved them, and hope they understand that she was suffering and yet doing her best. She loved me so that I could love them after she was gone.”
“Wow,” she said. “Got it.”
I smiled, pleased that after all these years we still had a few stories to share.
Ben and Todd had been estranged for years, and I had made reservations at the Magic Castle’s kid-friendly Sunday brunch for them to reconnect. Erik was even flying out with his family, as a surprise. I made a mental note to order copies of that book for all three of the boys, and perhaps one for Hope’s shelf. It was a bit advanced for her, but she could always put it in the Little Free Library by James’s coffee the next time we walked there for fresh beans.
I raised my left hand with the split fingers that looked like Spock’s salute, and mixed stories up and said, “Live long and prosper, Princess Leah. I’m going to bed for real this time.” We both got at least an hour’s nap before we were up again, and it was worth every yawn and trip to James’s coffee shop later that day.
I don’t know which is the best part in a memoir to interject, but here we are.
Cristi is a grouping of five lovely ladies: Cristi, Lea, Andrea, V, and A; a complex set of friends and more; the point is I love her and all of the conversations were with one of them, and three had spent time with me and my mother in Saint Francisville, two had met my father a few times, and one knew my grandfather well. The name, Cristi, floated to the top because she’s my oldest friend and I love her dearly, and everyone knows her; Cristi Lin Fournier. You may have seen her artwork in a few films, doing set design for shows like The Walking Dead and Super Hero films like Guardian of the Galaxy. She has, in my opinion, lovely eyes; and she gives this her blessing, whatever that means to you.
Hope is a long story, and I’m not ready to share that with you yet.
Jason Ian Partin