I began writing a memoir, and I wrote the first true sentence I remembered as a child: Stevie Nicks was fine.
I was eight when my dad took me to see Stevie Nicks sing at the Baton Rouge Civic Center, near the giant Red Stick monument on the Mississippi River levee. Her band, Fleetwood Mac, was famous, and 10,000 people crammed into the center to see them play their sold out 1980 Tusk tour. She was their lead singer, and she was, indeed, fine.
My dad had never lied to me, and Fleetwood Mac’s 1980 Tusk tour was worth remembering.
They had been selling out across America, and were playing at the Baton Rouge Civic Center that Saturday. My dad had wanted to see them since their 1977 Rumours album, which he played on an 8-track cassette in whichever car he was driving at the time. I must have had heard that tape dozens of times on the eight hour drive from Baton Rouge to his pot farms in Arkansas.
He’d smoke at least two joints on the drive, and we’d sing it on the eight hour drive. He was excited that they were playing in the Baton Rouge Civic Center on a Saturday, and I was excited because I hadn’t seen him in a month, and I always had fun with my dad.
I remember that day as if I were still eight years old.
I thought my dad would be proud of me as I crawled into his truck. I was famous, just like Big Daddy. But he didn’t know that yet, so he just said, “Hi Justin – damnit! I mean Jason. I love you, son.”
He made mistakes a lot. That was ok, because I knew he loved me. He told me so every other weekend, unless he missed picking me up because he was in Arkansas. He had a house in Baton Rouge and a lot of land in Arkansas, but he didn’t own a telephone so I was always surprised when I saw him.
I was so excited to see him and Miss Nicks that I forgot to tell him about my celebrity status. I had been on television, just like Big Daddy. I knew he’d be happy about it, because he talked about Big Daddy a lot – more than he talked about Miss Nicks. He showed me Big Daddy’s photo in the newspaper every time a new one came out, and pointed to him on television.
We drove to see Big Daddy last time we went on an adventure together. My dad said he had moved to a big building in Texas, and he was right, as always. It was huge! Bigger than my school. It was even bigger than the race track he built, my dad said, and that it was like a vacation in there.
I was excited to see Big Daddy, because he had given me a fancy fishing rod last time, and because my dad said he had a color television in his big house in Texas. My dad said it was like a vacation in there.
I liked vacations and color TV. Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo had taken me on vacation to Disney World in Florida that year. I saw a color TV for the first time in the Redneck Riviera. We stopped there because it was half way home. We got a room in a big building with a color television and a swimming pool. I watched color and cable TV for the first time.
I saw Popeye the Sailer eat a can of spinach and grow bigger and stronger. He smoked, like Pa Pa and Uncle Bob and my dad, and he protected a lady’s baby from a big mean man named Pluto. I didn’t understand what he said because he mumbled, but I laughed a lot every time the music came on telling me he was about to eat spinach and get big and be able to fight.
After we watched Popeye, we drove to Wendy’s dad’s apartment in the Redneck Riviera. Uncle Bob said it was just like where he thought her dad would end up.
He was smaller than Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo, but still bigger than me. He had a few kids there, but they didn’t talk with me. He smoked and cursed a lot, and he could draw pictures really good, probably as good as my dad could hunt.
He drew a cartoon one for me that day. It was a guy in a hat with X’s for eyes, and stars floating around his head, just like the ones around Pluto’s head after Popeye at spinach and hit him. His clenched the top of a bottle and tipped over as if her were dizzy.
Wendy’s dad dipped his finger in a glass of his drink and wiped it across the stars around the drawing’s hat. He blew it so it would dry, and signed it and told me it smelled like what was in the bottle and would be worth a lot of money one day.
I’m not sure how it happened, but he and he and Uncle Bob started to get mad at each other as fast as Popeye growing big to fight Pluto. It was the only time I had seen Uncle Bob angry or be loud. Auntie Lo had to pull him away, the same way Olive Oil would try to step in and help Popeye.
We left before they fought, and didn’t talk much on the way home. Uncle Bob He smoked a lot of cigarettes in the car. I sat in the back seat and played with the toys they bought me in Disney World.
After a few cigarettes, Uncle Bob told me that Wendy’s dad was an artist, and that people paid money for him to draw. I liked drawing, and always listened to Uncle Bob, so I thought he was telling me I could be an artist for a living. I didn’t understand the parts he said about Bill and All the Money, and other words I didn’t understand about Wendy’s dad.
I got back from seeing Disney World and Wendy’s dad in Florida, then my dad drove me to see Big Daddy in Texas. We drove eight hours to his new big house in Texas, but never go to go inside because it wasn’t visiting day.
“Shit!” my dad said when we pulled in the visitor’s parking lot and he saw the sign. Like I said, he made a lot of mistakes. He said he could do what he wanted, and told me to wait. He slammed the car door and walked towards the glass doors of Big Daddy’s house or hotel where he had color television.
I didn’t wait long. My dad came back and got behind the steering wheel and slammed the door shut harder than when he had left me there.
“They don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground,” he said. He started the car, and we drove all day to get back home.
Maybe that’s why it seemed so long between Baton Rouge and Texas – we drove it twice in the same day. I never even got to see the color TV. I wanted to watch Popeye again, and the cartoon about kids dressed as birds, flying a spaceship and fighting a bad man. They were about to take off his mask, and would continue next time, so I had hoped to see the next one on Big Daddy’s TV.
I don’t remember if my dad smoked a lot of joints on the way back to Baton Rouge, but he played that song where that lady asks the Lord to buy her a color TV, and another song where about a cat and a cradle in the sky. Neither of us were any good at singing along, but we still had fun.
He stopped singing and got serious, like he does sometimes. He put his arm on my shoulder, and looked at me real hard, and said Big Daddy had been mean to him when he was my age. He promised to never hit me. He promised to protect me. Like Popeye protected people, I asked. I don’t remember if he said anything about that.
I trusted my dad, and knew that his daddy could be mean to him. I had seen it, when I was a little kid, before he moved into his big building in Texas. That’s when he gave me a fancy fishing rod – Pa Pa called it that when I brought it home. It came in two pieces that you could snap together, and had a reel with lots of fishing string inside.
My dad picked me up from Pa Pa’s the day Big Daddy gave me the fancy fishing rod. Keith was with him, and kept talking about my dad’s new car. It was fine, he said.
My dad called Keith his little brother. He wasn’t little to me. He had Big Daddy’s round face and sky blue eyes and smile. Everyone told us he looked just like his daddy.
My dad had Mamma Jean’s dark brown eyes and thin face and frown. My eyes look just like my dad’s, everyone told me. He said I’d grow up to be just like him, just like in the song about a cat and a cradle in the sky.
He didn’t smoke any joints on the way to Big Daddy’s, like he did when we drove to Arkansas. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t smiling as we pulled into the driveway.
Big Daddy was behind one of the boats when we pulled up. Keith got into the back seat with me so that Big Daddy could sit in the front seat, next to my dad. He turned his body towards Keith and me, and smiled.
“Hey, son,” he said to Keith.
“Hey Daddy,” Kieth said smiling, with a voice that changed sounds as he spoke. He was huge, too, even then, and he seemed to get bigger every time I saw him. My dad said that would happen to me, too, but for now I was still a little kid.
“Hey, boy,” Big Daddy said to me.
He spoke clearly and slowly, not like most adults. You always knew what he was saying, and everyone listened to him. Well, everyone except my dad.
I said hi Big Daddy, then he said something to my dad. They started arguing about my dad’s fine new car. Big Daddy stopped smiling, and my dad’s voice got louder. He was almost yelling. I had never seen someone yell at Big Daddy. He didn’t raise his voice back. I never saw him raise his voice, just like Uncle Bob. And he was almost always smiling, like Pa Pa. But he wasn’t smiling, and his voice sounded different from usual.
“Keep quiet, boy,” he told my dad.
Wow! I thought. I had never seen someone tell my dad what to do. I looked back and forth between them to see what would happen.
My dad was a big man, too. He was Edward Grady Partin, too. They had the same name. He wasn’t as big as Big Daddy, but I think he was stronger. Everyone did what he told them to, except Pa Pa and Uncle Bob. And Bryan, too, now that I think of it. But dad said he’d never hit a man with only one arm. He’s nice like that.
“Fuck you! Don’t you tell me what to do, old man!” he yelled as he pointed his finger up into Big Daddy’s face.
My dad held his finger there, breathing hard as Big Daddy shifted his hip up as if he were getting out a handkerchief to blow his nose, like Pa Pa. He pulled out his folded Buck hunting knife, bigger than the Old Henry Pa Pa gave me, and lowered his hip as he opened the knife blade. He twisted his wrist so that the blade was sideways, not up and down. You hold a knife up and down when you gut a deer that’s hanging from its feet. I had never seen someone hold a knife sideways, so I watched closely.
“Shut your mouth, boy, or I’ll cut you. Bad.”
I looked at Big Daddy’s face as he returned the knife to his pocket. He didn’t stop looking at my dad, and no one said anything. He smiled again, and handed me the fishing rod, still in its box.
He said he hoped I liked it, then got out of the car. We backed out of his driveway, and I waved goodbye when he reached his boats and turned around. He must not have seen me, because he didn’t wave back. I sat down and opened the box he gave me, so I could play with my new fancy fishing rod.
My dad didn’t say anything on the way back to Pa Pa’s. Keith started to say something, but my dad turned towards him while he was driving, and pointed his finger into Keith’s face and told him to shut his mouth. Of course, I wasn’t going to say anything, because Uncle Bob had taught me that it was mean to tell someone to shut up by not speaking to me when I told it to him. He said it didn’t matter if that’s how Wendy and my dad speak to me, his feelings were hurt and he wouldn’t speak to me until I apologized.
Besides, no one had to tell me to keep my mouth shut, because I was inspecting my new fishing rod in the back seat of my dad’s car while he yelled at Keith. I couldn’t wait to show it to PaPaw.
My dad dropped me off at PaPaw’s, and said, “I’ll see you next time Justin – I mean Jason. I love you, son.” I waved goodbye as he drove away, and walked with PaPaw through the front gate and into his farm house.
Things didn’t change much between PaPaw and me after I started using my fancy fishing rod. He wasn’t jealous of it, and he still called me his Lil’ Buddy. He said he missed me the past few days, and that he loved me. I hugged him and told him I loved him, too, and we went inside and hugged MaMaw and told her we loved her, too. The next day, we went fishing, and he taught me how to use the fancy fishing rod Big Daddy gave me.
We fished in the same pond. He still used a cane pole, and I used my rod and reel. We practiced casting by tying a big red bobber to the line and casting in his cow field. I got good at that, then he showed me how to put new string on the reel, tie a hook, and burn off the end of the knot with a lit cigarette. I was only ok at that. Then we went fishing.
What’s funny is that I never used that new rod for fishing. The pond behind Pa Pa’s barn was so small that if I tried to cast the bait it would land near the other side. If I wanted to fish there, I could just walk around the bank and fish at the same spot with any one of the cane poles behind his house, so there was no use for my fancy fishing rod. I used it the same way I used PaPaw’s cane poles. We’d toss out the line with a red bobber on it, and wait under the big oak tree and PaPaw would smoke and I’d try to keep my eye on the bobber, but usually I just ran around and pretended to be Popeye or The Lone Ranger or other heroes I had seen on television.
PaPaw and I always had a good time, and we fished there a lot together. It was confusing the days after my dad would take me to see Big Daddy, because he called PaPaw Ed, and PaPaw called my dad and Big Daddy Ed, too. And, to make it even more confusing, Uncle Bob was from Prince Edward Island. He even took me there once. We got on a big airplane and I had to sit still forever. Uncle Bob would walk to the front and smoke with the other people who smoked, and he must have gone through a whole pack of cigarettes in the time it took to get to Prince Edward Island. I never saw any Eds there.
PaPaw was Ed White, and his son and daughter were black. Linda White married Craig Black, and they lived with us with their new baby. She was white, which confused me, because my first grade teacher at Westminister Elementary School near Uncle Bob’s house was Miss White, and she was black.
Life was confusing when I wasn’t with PaPaw and MaMaw. We all kissed each other on the cheek a lot, and Ma Ma said my kisses were sweet as the sugar she put in cookies, and she always had cookies waiting for me I finished fishing with PaPaw.
We’d sit in the pond by his barn and fish until sunset, and walk back to the house when we were hungry. Ma Ma always had cookies and a carton of cigarettes waiting for us. She’d see me coming and smile and throw her arms wide open. Her red lipstick always made her teeth look like the biggest smile in the world.
“Gimme some shugga’!” she’d say from ten feet away. I’d start giggling and wrap my arms around my body to protect myself.
“I’m gonna get me some shugga!” she’d say, softer, and a few steps closer. I’d try to control my giggles so I could defend myself better, but that always made me start giggling more. I kept trying though.
She did that until she was able to wrap her arms around me. She’d keep giving me shugga until I thought I’d pee my pants laughing.
I was Pa Paw’s Lil’ Buddy, and MaMaw’s Lil’ Love Bug.
Ma Ma was taller than Pa Pa, especially because of her hair. She did her hair after putting on her face. It stood high on her head, and not even the strongest hurricane winds that blew over our oak trees could move Ma Ma’s hair. She smelled of cookies, love, and hairspray.
PaPaw was the most famous tree surgeon in all of Baton Rouge. He smelled of sawdust, love, and cigarettes. And sometimes worms, or the dirt that they came in. Or crickets. He kept potatoes in his cricket cage to keep ’em alive.
I tried one of PaPaw’s cigarettes once, when I was carrying one from Linda to him in the bathroom where he said he was thinking about a lot of things. I held the lit cigarette up high so I wouldn’t drop it, and when I saw myself in the big hallway mirror I thought I looked cool with a cigarette, and I stopped and put it in my mouth and breathed in, and thought I would die. I coughed and coughed, and was still coughing when I brought PaPaw his cigarette. He laughed and asked what I thought, and I coughed and said I liked MaMaw’s cookies better.
I went to the hospital the day after trying my first cigarette. I was climbing the gate to PaPaw’s pond, and he and Keith were burning fire ant hills. If you’ve never had fire ants – you’re lucky! I accidentally stood in a fire ant hill and 10,000 of them ran up my leg before I noticed. They all started biting, and 10,000 more ran up their backs and got to my belly.
I was running around and slapping my stomach and legs when PaPaw ran up with a can of diesel gas and held me still and poured it on me. The ants fell off, and he took me inside for cookies and MaMaw’s shugga’ kisses. My legs and belly hurt for days.
My dad had warned me about fire ants. They were on the way to his farm, too, and I was more careful with him. He had showed me the scar over his leg from someone pouring gas on his fire ants when he was a kid. They probably had a lit cigarette – even PaPaw put his out before pouring gas on the ants in my pants.
PaPa and Keith were burning fire ant hills by the barn, and I was climbing the gate by PaPaw’s truck. It was a big one, taller than the truck roof, and when I got to the top it started to fall over. I let go and hit the ground and the gate fell on me and I felt more pain than I ever had, and I screamed and wondered why everything looked red and blurry.
I saw Keith’s giant body blocking the light and I felt him pick me up. I heard him yell, “I got ’em! Let’s go!”
My next memory is at the stop light by the 7-11 where PaPaw walked to buy cigarettes. I saw him leaning out of the window and waiving the white hankerchief he kept in his back pocket to blow his nose.
“Get out da’ way! Get out da’ way!” he shouted with his head out of the window. His left arm was out the window, too, and was waiving the white handkerchief he kept in his pocket to blow his nose.
“Move!” yelled Keith out of the passenger window. He kept both arms around me. We were covered in blood. There must not have been much left in me. I fell asleep.
I woke up Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I didn’t believe them, because there wasn’t even a lake at this hospital. “Where’s the lake?” I challenged them. If there was a lake, I wanted to go fishing.
There wasn’t a lake, but I still had fun. Their recovery room had more toys than any of the homes I stayed in, and there were other kids to play with. PaPaw was with me the whole time, and I didn’t hurt any more, and I had fun in the play room, and I was happy.
The liers at Our Lady of the Lake were nice people and played with me. They even had a color TV in the play room, just like I had seen in Disney Land. I could play with toys and watch television at the same time, so I was in heaven.
I was sitting on a scooter and pushing it with my feet when I frooze still and stared at my future on the color television. Happy kids were playing with Stretch Armstrong, and they could play with it as rough as they wanted, because no matter how much they stretched him, he always bounced back.
I asked everyone who visited me to get me a Stretch Armstrong, please, but no one did. I still had fun in the play room, even though Stretch Armstrong was on television every day, taunting me with his super stretching skills. I tried to stretch the arms of a doll like the kids on television stretched Stretch, and I pulled both arms wide open like a cross, and I broke the doll’s arm. I hid the doll because I didn’t want to get in trouble, and said I must have a super hero Stretch like the kids on color television.
I was back at PaPaws and looking at myself in the mirror and impressed at the big white bandage around my entire head. I looked funny bald. PaPaw said they had to shave my head and sew me up with 82 stitches, and that the doctors had never seen a boy so brave. MaMaw agreed, and made me cookies, and I stared at my bald head and bandage and imagined how brave I was.
We went back to the hospital a couple of weeks later, and they took off the bandages and hurt the back of my head when they took out the stitches, and when I looked in the mirror at PaPaw’s my head looked funny with short hair sticking straight up. I was looking at myself when the doorbell rang.
I was surprised because no one visited after dark. I thought I heard my dad at the door, and I peeked out of the hallway to see. He was outside the kitchen door by the carport and trying to get past PaPaw in the doorway.
My dad could see over his head, and he saw me peeking at them and looked back down at PaPaw.
“Get the fuck outta my way, Ed,” my dad said.
“Sorry, Ed. You know da’ rules,” Pa Pa replied.
My dad held up a department store bag and pulled out a brand new Stretch Armstrong that was still in the box.
Well, almost. I saw on the box that my dad had bought the black one. You know – the bad guy. The black guy could stretch, too, and he fought Stretch on television. I told you that my dad made a lot of mistakes. But, he didn’t have a television or a telephone, so there’s no way he could have known, and I was happy to see him so I didn’t care.
“You said you wanted one of these, right son?” he asked, and I ran towards my new Black Stretch Armstrong. My dad took a step inside towards me, and PaPaw stepped between us and asked him to stop.
“Please get outta da’ house, Ed,” PaPaw said. I was surprised that he wasn’t smiling, but he wasn’t as impressed by super heroes as I was.
MaMaw and Craig and Linda came into the kitchen and stood beside him. They weren’t smiling either. Craig stood next to PaPaw, and asked my dad to leave. My dad pointed his finger down at Craig’s face and told him to get the fuck outta his way, and he pushed Craig and PaPaw aside and grabbed me, and everyone suddenly started yelling and fighting and pulling me.
I started yelling, too. They said I was crying, but they must have been thinking about the baby. She started crying, and PaPaw said something and all of the Whites and Blacks stopped yelling, and my dad let me go.
I held Pa Pa’s leg while Linda ran to the bedroom to get the baby. Craig stood in the living room by the hallway mirror and kept watching us.
Ma Ma put a towel on my arm to stop the bleeding from a scratch. Pa Pa kept standing between my dad and me. They were quiet until I stopped crying, and he asked if he could give me my present then leave. Pa Pa agreed. He said we had to stay under the carport, in the light.
We sat outside by the gate for a few minutes as my dad wiped blood off my arm and told me he loved me. He said my name right the first time that time. He said I was strong, like him, and I’d be fine. I pulled the arms of my new Black Stretch Armstrong as far as I could, and he snapped back.
“See!” My dad said, smiling. “You’re just like Stretch Armstrong.” I never told him it wasn’t really Stretch. He told me he loved me, and he left.
I went back inside, and on the way to my bedroom I stopped in the hallway and looked at myself in the mirror. I looked tough with a bandages on my cheek. I held Black Armstrong’s right hand with my right hand, and his left hand with my left hand, and I spread my arms apart like Jesus and watched Black Armstrong stretch with me. He did not break like the doll in the hospital, and I knew the black guy was just as strong as Stretch.
I think he lasted a week until I stabbed him in the ribs with a screwdriver. It was like gutting a deer – I wanted to see what was inside. Stretch bled clear gooey stuff, and wouldn’t bounce back after I stabbed him, and I finally understood why Big Daddy carried a big knife, and why PaPaw had given me an Old Henry folding knife. I decided I’d get good with a knife, like Big Daddy.
After I killed Black Armstrong, I began to get confused again. I was staying at Wendy’s apartment more often, which was fine. She kept telling me to call PaPaw Mr. White, and she told me to stop calling Miss White black after Miss White called her.
She was nice, even when she asked me to do things I didn’t like – no one likes homework. But, I must have been good at it, because my second grade teacher told me that I’d be on television with my art. She was a good teacher – I’m surprised I can’t remember her name.
Personally, I think I excelled in second grade because Miss White never saw my potential as an artist in the first grade. Even Craig Black did, and he was a famous artist! He had taught me what I knew about drawing, and Uncle Bob had bought my first pieces of art that I colored and made into super heroes flying space ships. I was destined to be a great artist.
The teacher told me I’d be on the Saturday morning Buckskin Bill Black show that everyone in the world must watch, too. I was proud of my poem and drawing, and I would happily read it on television.
I called it Brown Deer. It was really good. I drew a big brown rectangle with antlers, and added 12 or 25 arrows flying at it from all different directions. And I tried to empathize with the deer by speaking with it. I was careful when I wrote my poem in big block letters across the top.
Brown Deer, Brown Deer
What do you see?
I see shooting arrows
Coming at me.
Adults let me and the other kids practice before Buckskin Bill and his live audience saw us, and they said there was no chance that deer would survive all of my arrows. They asked how arrows were coming from all directions, and I told one of them how my dad taught me to hunt by walking towards each other, so that deer would run towards either one of us, and we could shoot at it, hopefully missing the other person walking towards you. Then I told them how to gut a deer so that it’s insides fell out and all the blood drained from them, and that my PaPaw – I mean Mr. White – had given me an Old Henry knife of my own, and that I knew how to use it real good, too.
They would stop smiling and look at me. They asked me to not talk about that part on television, and to just read my poem after the older kids talked about their school projects. I didn’t get to say anything after I read my poem.
My dad didn’t own a television in his teepee in his house filled with marijuana, so he wouldn’t have seen me on the Buckskin Bill Black show before he picked me up to take me on that month’s adventure to see Stevie Nicks. After I crawled into his truck, I didn’t interrupt him to talk about being on television, because I enjoyed hearing stories about Fleetwood Mac and their singer, Stevie Nicks. My dad said she was fine, and I wanted to know what that meant.
She and the band made music by being high on cocaine and fucking a lot, he said. My dad always told good stories, and I’d listen without saying a word. Stevie would dance for us in different dresses all the night, he told me, and that they hugged her tight ass.
I thought my art about us hunting could wait until after I met Miss Nicks, because I trusted my dad that it would be worth remembering.
He lit another joint and kept talking about how fine she was as we drove to the Civic Center. We parked the car and got out, and as we started to walk away he saw that I accidentally knocked an empty beer can out of the passenger seat floorboard. He opened the door and tossed it back with the others, and reminded me to never litter.
He was always responsible about things like that, because we loved fishing and hunting and wanted clean rivers and forests. That made sense, and I said I’d try to be more careful.
We walked past the ticket counter. I don’t remember anyone talking with me. Maybe they didn’t see me. I was small back then, maybe 3 feet tall, and surrounded by big people in a hurry to see Stevie Nicks.
They may have let us in because didn’t want to question my dad. He was a big man who didn’t talk much. He frowned a lot when it wasn’t just us, or if he wasn’t partying with his friends. I have scars from a couple of those parties, like the one on the back of my head.
Most people were intimidated, because when his lips were tight, and you could see were his dark eyes buried between his long hair and bushy beard. He always seemed to get past people and do what he wanted when he frowned. He didn’t even have to buy a ticket for me. I imagined that I was surrounded by an invisible field, like kids in the space cartoon on color TV.
He held my hand as we walked inside to buy beer in a plastic cup from one of the concession stands. We had arrived early, so there weren’t many people to walk through as he found a place to drink his beer near the front of the stage, 20 to 30 feet from a microphone on a stand. That’s where he said Stevie would sing, he said as he pointed to it.
He sipped his beer and passed a joint with a couple of men. When he was having fun, he smiled widely, and was generous with his laughs and drugs and beer.
The lights dimmed and the band came on stage. Everyone whistled or hollered or cupped their hands and shouted to Miss Nicks, but I couldn’t see them, because all I could see were the butts bumping into me.
The band started to play, and a few people spilled beer on my head as they applauded or passed a joint or cupped their hands to holler “Yeah! WoooHooo! Stevie! Stevie!” I stood on my toes and strained to see what was happening, so my dad put me on his shoulders. Now, I was as high as they were, and I could see her clearly.
I watched her dance as her long flowing dress flapped like butterfly wings behind her. She danced and spun around the microphone twenty feet in front of me.
My dad was right. She was fine. He was right about everything, and he never lied to me.
I watched her dance, and I saw smoke from 10,000 people passing joints. I was in a cloud, high on my dad’s shoulders. I looked down and saw him accept a joint offered by one of the men who had spilled beer on me.
After the show, my dad held my hand as he stumbled to his car. He stood with the door open and fumbled to get keys out of his blue jean pockets. He sat down – the door was already open because he never locked it – and fumbled to put a key in the ignition. He found the right one, but he said he was too drunk to drive, so he pulled me onto his lap and said I’d have to help.
He said he’d operate the foot pedals while I helped with the steering wheel. I was high, too, so this sounded like a fabulous idea, and I clasped the steering wheel above his hands and we took off down River Road to Sonny’s house, who lived a mile or two downriver from the Civic Center, in Baton Rouge’s Spanish Town. I don’t know why it was called that; in 1980, there weren’t any Spanish people there, just a lot of black families and Sonny, his friend since high school.
I’ve always been bad at directions, and I couldn’t remember where Sonny lived. In fairness to me, I was distracted by the excitement of driving for the first time. And I was stoned, I would realize one day. I think I’ve always been able to focus when high.
My dad understood these things, and guided me around a few bends in the river road. His hands did most of the work. He was probably teaching me to drive a car, like how my Pa Pa taught me to drive his tractor as I sat on his lap. Pa Pa and my dad argued a lot, so I didn’t tell either one of them that I was learning to drive from the other one, especially because I was driving to Sonny’s house.
We drove along the curves in River Road as it followed the Mississippi River for a mile, then turned right into Spanish Town, and left at a stop sign to Sonny’s driveway on the right. We got out of the car, and I didn’t knock at a beer can this time, because they were in the passenger floorboard. He walked ahead of me and knocked on Sonny’s door.
The porch light came on after a few minutes of him knocking, then Sonny opened the door and invited us in. Music was playing loudly, and he was happy to see us again. He had a few lines of cocaine already cut onto a mirror, and there was a pie pan filled with weed and rolling papers next to the mirror.
We weren’t there long. I watched my dad and Sonny do a few lines of coke, then he stood up and tossed a bag of weed on Sonny’s table and thanked him for the good times. We left, and I rode in the passenger seat the rest of the way home. He drove us twenty minutes to his house across from Belaire High School.
We sang to the Rumours 8-track cassette that played over his car speakers, and he kept talking about how fine Stevie was and how good of a band Fleetwood Mac was. He looked at me as he drove – longer than he should have, I know now – and smiled as he told me that cocaine sobers you up when you’ve drank too much. I assumed “sobers you up” means you stop dropping your keys. He was right, as usual, and we made it to his house safely. I always had fun and learned a lot with my dad, when he was in town.
He dropped me off at Wendy’s that night, and she asked what I did over the weekend. I froze, of course, because I hadn’t remembered to think of a good lie before I got home this time. Being high make you forget how to talk about things.
I can’t remember the lie I told. It probably wasn’t a good one, and it probably wasn’t the same as the lie I had told last time. That time, I had to not talk about Cousin Donny staying at our house. He was in a wheelchair, and he smoked a lot of joints with my dad. He broke his back a few years before, after drinking beer and crashing his car into a tree.
He’d get unhappy after a few beers, and he’d tell me what it was like living in a wheelchair. He’d spill the beer in his hand and mumble, but I understood what he was saying because as he talked he showed me the tube that came out of his ass. He said he hated shitting into a plastic bag and cleaning it up every day. He also hated pissing through a catheter shoved up his dick hole, though he once said it didn’t matter because he couldn’t feel his dick anymore. He said he missed jerking off, whatever that was, and said he’d never fuck again.
That made me sad. My dad fucked a lot, and he said it was fun. It’s what men do. I was sad that Donny wasn’t a man any more.
I didn’t like Donny’s stories. But his van was cool. It had a machine that lifted his wheelchair, like one of the robot cars I saw on television. It had levers by the steering wheel so that you could drive without using your feet. Even I could drive it, he said.
I was less impressed by that van now that I had driven my dad. I didn’t need levers to drive without my feet. Besides, Wendy’s friend Bryan could drive a motorcycle with one arm. He could even roll joints with one hand. Danny had two hands, and he still fumbled with his joints.
I never wanted to have a tube shoved up my dick hole, like Donny, and I never wanted to shit into a bag, and I wanted to be a man. I didn’t understand why my dad listened to Donnyu’s stories but still drove after drinking beers and smoking joints, but I figured it was one of those things I would understand when I was bigger.
What they told me not to talk about, though, was that Cousin Donny’s house had been blown up. His father, Big Daddy’s little brother Doug, was running the Teamsters now, and Donny had been staying at their house when someone blew it up. They thought it was Hoffa’s men, but it could have been anyone, they said. A lot of people wanted us dead.
Things like that always seemed to be happening to his family, so I didn’t think much of it. Besides, having your house blown up didn’t sound nearly as bad as having a tube shoved up your dick hole.
One thing I understood well was to not talk about what I did with my dad at school, just like I didn’t tell Wendy about most our visits because I was confused about what I should talk about and what I shouldn’t. I never saw PaPaw or MaMaw or Craig or Linda or their baby again.
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Notes from 2020:
40 years later, in the year 2020, I look back with more clarity in hindsight, and I’m still glad I saw Fleetwood Mac’s 1980 Tusk tour. It was a good show. My dad has never lied to me, and he told me the first sentence I remember verifying for myself was true: Stevie Nicks was fine.
What’s not true is that Keith swept me into his arms when I was bleeding. I asked him about this when verifying my stories, but only as an afterthought. I was so certain it had been him that I can remember remembering it as a kid. It’s the reason I put forth so much effort to see Uncle Keith, and why I viewed him as a father figure as a kid, even though I had only seen him once or twice since leaving Louisiana 30 years ago. When I learned that my belief was based on a false memory, my brain didn’t change the connections it had formed.
I researched and found Craig Black, whom I hadn’t seen since the Stretch Armstrong incident. He was a 67 year old retired artist in 2020, and he wasn’t the big man working with PaPaw the day I fell and was taken to the hospital.
Craig said it was probably one of the ex-convicts PaPaw hired and trained. He said PaPaw probably paid more in bail than in wages to help people in Baton Rouge, and that I could have been saved by a person no one else would hire. My scared mind locked on to whatever associations I could, and a stranger must have comforted me in a way that formed one of my first memories, and the first time I associated the feeling of trust overriding the feeling of fear.
I’ll probably never know who acted to save me that day, and they may never know the lasting impact they had on my life. It was one of my earliest memories that I associated with the emotions of love and appreciation and faith that everything would be fine.
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