“Partin was a big tough-looking man with an extensive criminal record as a youth. Hoffa misjudged the man and thought that because he was big and tough and had a criminal record and was out on bail and was from Louisiana, the home states of Carlos Marcello, the man must have been a guy who paints houses.”Charles Brant and Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran in Frank’s 2014 memoir,“I Heard You Paint Houses,” a reference to mafia lingo for a hitman who paints the walls of a house red with splattered blood.
My first vivid memory of Wendy Partin and Debbie LeBoux, Cindi’s little sister, is from the late spring of 1975 when azaleas were in full blossom and their scent waifed into every breath. PawPaw had just given Wendy the used car that I’d later recognize as a Datsun, a small hatchback with lots of easily accessed storage that could haul telephone books, like the ubiquitous Yellow Pages that were delivered every spring, listing all the new businesses in town.
PawPaw helped Wendy and Debbie load yellow books into the Datsun, leaving enough room on top of the back passenger swat for me to squeeze in against the roof. They stood back and smoked cigarettes and admired their work and joked that I’d barely fit. They were right. Debbie helped cram me into the small space and Wendy slid into the driver’s seat and laughed and tried to operate the manual transmission and we lurched a few times before finally driving down PawPaw’s gravel driveway. She didn’t fully stop at the blacktop, and I slid against the window when she lurched left and changed gears and we accelerated down the small two lane road towards more densely packed subdivisions in desperate need of the Yellow Pages. We went up the interstate ramp and were flying down I-10 when they rolled up their windows and Debbie took out her dainty little bag with hand-sewn flowers and began rolling a joint and chatting with me. She was even smaller than Wendy, and had delicate deft hands that quickly rolled a perfectly formed joint.
I was fascinated by Debbie’s little bag, and she handed it to me while she lit the joint and cracked her windshield to exhale up and out. The bag was beautiful, and the raised textures of the flowers was unlike my brightly colored but smooth Crayon bag. And it smelled nice, and I wanted it. Debbie laughed and handed the joint to Wendy, who had a hand free now that we were on the interstate and not changing gears. Wendy inhaled and coughed out her cracked window, and Debbie pointed out the stitching on her bag and told me that it was hers, but that she’d show me how to make one and help me make my own later. That sounded like fun – I already did a lot of arts and crafts projects with Linda and Craig, her husband, who lived with PawPaw and me. I was sure I could make a little weed bag just as nice as Debbie’s, especially with her help.
She was fun. Wendy was focused on driving to the subdivision and smoking the joint, but Debbie could multitask, and she could somehow chat with me without exhaling. There was a slight haze in the air, but she did her best to look up and out the window to exhale without breaking eye contact with me. I was perched high on the Yellow Pages, in a slight haze of smoke, and though I can’t recall what she and I talked about, I remember laughing more with Debbie than anyone else before.
She could do magic. She could remove her thump and blow at its stump and it would magically pop back into existence. She removed my nose and held it in her closed fist, barely poking out between her fingers, and when I giggled and grasped my face she blew towards me and my nose magically reappeared, just like her thumb had; I never noticed that my nose looked just like her thumb. I liked Debbie.
Wendy turned on the radio, and we all sang together. It was a popular song released in 1971, Janis Joplin’s cover of “Me and Janis had already passed away of a drug overdose by then, one of the many musicians of the 60’s and 70’s who coincidentally died at age 26 or 27, like Jimmie Hendrix and Jim Morrison, and, to this day, is an urban legend nicknamed The 27 Club that includes musicians from my era like Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. Janis held a special place in Wendy and her girlfriend’s heart, because she was young and vivacious and free and they dressed like her and sang lyrics in their best immitation of her raspy, southern bluesy voice, especially because they were all from Baton Rouge, and they sang as if no one were listening who would judge them and this was the most wonderful moment of their lives.
Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train
When I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down, just before it rained
And rode us all the way into New OrleansI pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana
I’s playin’ soft while Bobby sang the blues
Windshield wipers slappin’ time, I’s holdin’ Bobby’s hand in mine
We sang every song that driver knew
The song ended and they laughed and talked about things I don’t recall and finished the joint and rolled the windows back down. The air rushed at me and I watched us descend from I-10 and go into a subdivision. I sat perched on the stack of Yellow Pages and Wendy would lurch house to house, and Debbie would hop out and run a phone book up to each doorstep. Soon I had more space, and it was easy for me to hop in and out, and I began helping and they told me how good I was; a year later, in Kindergarten, I’d brag that I had my first job at age four, and that I worked for Kelly and her girls, Wendy and Debbie, and I was really good at it. I also knew the lyrics to a lot of Janis Joplin songs, which, though not on the official learning objective in kindergarden, would impress my teacher, Miss Founteneux, probably because she also sang every song that driver knew.
After emptying the Datsun, we stopped at a 7-11 and got Coke Slushies and took them to a public park in Zachary with a playground, and Wendy pushed me on a swing and Debbie road down a slide with me, and they tried to teach me to throw a Frisbee but I wasn’t good at it. Debbie showed me how to pretend to remove someone’s nose and clench my thumb to look not unlike a nose in my hand. We sipped Slushies and seemed to have no worries in the world. I’d later say that working was fun, and wouldn’t understand why my dad was so opposed to it.
Wendy took Debbie home to her mother’s small appartment, a remarkable experience because her mom spoke by shrieking without inflection. It was terrifying, but Debbie and Wendy didn’t seem to mind and I became used to it and the thick cigarette smoke that hung in the apartment like a morning fog over PawPaw’s pond. They had lots of snacks, sugary sweet things like Raisenettes – chocolate covered raisins – and fortune cookies from the small Chinese restaurant on the busy road by their apartment. I’d learn over time that Debbie’s mom and sisters were on state disability for scizophrenia, and that Debbie was good at crafts because she spent a lot of time in juvenille art therapy classes. But, at the time, I simply liked Debbie and was happy to have so many snacks, because for some reason I was hungrier than I had ever been after delivering Yellow Pages and listening to Janis Joplin’s sultry voice.
Wendy said we were running late, so we left Debbie’s and lurched past the Chinese restaurant onto the busy road and were soon flying along I-10. I had eaten an entire bag of Raisenettes and several fortune cookies and was sleepy, and I stretched out in the relatively luxurious space of the front seat and dozed off.
I woke up some time later when I heard Wendy talking with someone. We were stopped on the side of the interstate, and a big man in a uniform was standing outside Wendy’s window. I was groggy, and she nervously shook me and looked at the policeman and said something about me, and fumbled in her big purse and handed him her driver’s license.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” she told him. “My brother’s sick, and I was in a hurry to get us home.”
He bent down and peered through the window and looked at me. I was awake by then.
“Howdy, son,” he said, smiling. I didn’t smile back – I had never seen someone in uniform before, and I wasn’t sure what to think. “What’s your name?”
“Jason Partin, s’uh,” I replied, speaking politely, like I had heard PawPaw speak with the men who worked for him, calling them sir and the young ladies ma’am, like a fine southern gentlemen should, but I pronounced my name like Debbie had, the Cajun way, Pa’tan. The police officer may have been impressed by my manners, and Pa’tan was a respectable, Cajun name that meant we were locals, so he looked at Wendy’s license, confirmed our names matched, smiled and thanked her kindly, and said we could go but to drive more slowly so that we got home safely. Wendy agreed, and we lurched back into traffic and she clutched her steering wheel with shaking hands and asked me to not tell Mr. White.
Wendy pulled into PawPaw’s gravel driveway and I saw MawMaw waiting for us in the carport beside PawPaw’s cricket cage. She was a classic southern belle of a woman, middle aged yet energetic, with bright red lipstick and grey hair that she tended immacuately and arranged in a seemingly impossible beehive on top of her head, held in place by copious amounts of hairspray. Her maiden name has been Dorris Shakelton, from the wealthy Baton Rouge Lamar family; they owned 85% of roadside billboards in America, and today they lead a publicly traded advertising company. If you drive along any road in America and see a billboard, likely at the bottom is small, green logo that says, ”Lamar,” and that’s a sign that you are, in some small way, connected to MawMaw and this story.
Before I hopped out of Wendy’s Datsun, I could almost smell the things I loved most about MawMaw, hairspray and chocolate chip cookies, and I was so excited that I almost jumped out before Wendy had come to a complete stop.
I was famished again, unsurprisingly – people call hunger after riding high atop the Yellow Pages “the munchies” – and MawMaw always had lots of chocolate chip cookies and shugga’ for me, and I couldn’t wait to get inside. We finally stopped, but Wendy had to help me open the Datsun’s old rusty door before I could hop out. It took forever, and as soon as my big feet hit the gravel with a satisfying crunch and I ran towards MawMaw without saying goodbye to Wendy. She squatted down and rested her hands on her knees and smiled a big, huge, red-lipstick covered smile and waited for me to reach her before opening her arms and receiving my hug. She held me tightly and gave me shugga’ all over my cheeks, and I giggled and pretended to hate it and kept wiping off the red lipstick marks I knew would be there. Wendy drove away – I wasn’t allowed to spend the night with her yet – and I had fallen into a ritual of transitioning from Wendy to MawMaw centered around cookies and shugga’.
“Gimme some shugga’!” she’d say, every time, and I’d giggle and hide my face with my hands and she’d peck around looking for an opening to place one more red lipstick smack of shugga’. She almost always found at least one spot, and sometimes I lowered my guard intentionally and allowed one more smack! before wiping it off. Once inside, she’d help me wash the red off my hands and cheeks and give me cookies and ask me what happened with Wendy. I always felt bad lying to MawMaw, so I usually just went silent and looked at my big feet, and she would sigh and rest her hands on her hips and look down at me and, always, squat back down and smile that big red smile and give me another hug. She soon stopped asking, thankfully, and we just enjoyed our cookies and waited for PawPaw to come home after cleaning up Glenoaks High School and taking care of its trees.
Usually, he’d come home and grab a beer and light a Camel and fill a mesh cricket tube full of crickets from their cage in the carport, and we’d carry a couple of cane poles to the small pond beyond the big gate. He’d teach me to tie fishhook knots and use his cigarette to burn off the loose ends, and how to hook a cricket so it lived and moved under water and attracted fish, and how to watch the red bobber float on the dark water and not react when it danced, only when it went under and the fish had committed.
Every time I caught a little pond brim, he’d tell me what a good job I did and that we should toss him back in so that it could get bigger for next time. It never did. I only caught tiny brim in PawPaw’s pond, but I never blamed him for that, and never got tired of hoping to one day catch a big one. And, every time we finished fishing, I was always happy to walk back to the dinner MawMaw would have waiting, and, of course, milk and cookies for dessert.
The day after I delivered Yellow Pages with Wendy and Debbie, PawPaw took me for a walk to buy cigarettes and the nearby convenience store. Like with MawMaw, I had rituals with PawPaw, and walking to the store was one of my favorites because it was beside a giant stately oak tree, like the one Wendy and her friends climbing in Granny’s yard, and PawPaw would always stop and play with me and that tree. Its branches were long and stretched out in undulating waves across the field and were draped in Spanish moss, and PawPaw had discovered one branch that formed a perfect swing, like a giant’s arm cradling something gently, and every time we arrived I’d try to climb into the swing. I’d get a little better every time, and he was always nearby in case I slipped or needed a nudge. I almost made it that day, and at the last moment, just before I would have slipped and fallen, I heard his voice.
“D’er ya go, Lil’ Buddy,” he said, giving me a gentle nudge so that my fingers could grasp the bark enough to pull myself up and into a dip formed by the undulating branch.
I sat in the tree and looked PawPaw in the eyes, and he nudged the branch and it swayed up and down and I giggled and clutched the bark and felt like I could keep climbing all the way to the big bright blue sky barely visible through the oak tree’s green and brown canopy. PawPaw snatched a piece of grey Spanish moss and made it look like his beard and I laughed and let go of the bark and picked a piece of moss for myself. He stayed beside me in case I fell, and we sat there as two old, bearded men, laughing at nothing in particular.
“Aw’ right, Lil’ Buddy, time t’ go,” he said, and replaced his beard on the branch and put his hands under my arms and lifted me up. I kept my beard, knowing my clever disguise would fool the store workers. It had worked every time so far.
We walked in and the man behind the counter smiled and said, “Hi, Ed! Who you got here today?”
I whipped off my Spanish moss and showed him it was me, and he looked surprised and said he hand’t recognized me. We chatted, and PawPaw picked up a carton of milk and a roll of chocolate chip cookie dough, pre-made and shaped into a cookie-diameter tube, and set them on the counter between us. The man reached up and grabbed a pack of Camels and put them beside the milk and cookies.
“Thank you, s’uh,” PawPaw said, cheerful as always. He paused, went back to the walled refrigerator, and came back with a six pack of Miller pony bottles, the shorter, round bottles. The man behind the counter put our milks in one bag for PawPaw to carry, and, as usual, gave me my own bag to carry the cookie dough.
Back home, I gave MawMaw the tube of dough and she off a piece for me – I may have liked raw dough as much as baked cookies – and PawPaw and I both drank our milk and waited for that day’s employee to show up. This time, it was my Uncle Kieth, Ed Partin Jr’s little brother, not his friend the car dealer. Kieth Partin takes after his father, physically. He’s a a remarkably huge man that radiates strength and formidability, with his father’s sky blue eyes and light blonde hair. Yet he’s a gentle giant, and a hard worker who came around often.
As with all his employees, PawPaw called Kieth s’uh and offered him a pony bottle of milk before going to work in the back field, beside the small fishing pond and barn. I usually came along, though I just watched or fished while they cut branches and burned them on top of fire ant nests, killing two birds with one stone, as the saying goes.
But, that time, instead of fishing I set my sites on climbing the 8 foot tall rusted metal gate that separated the house from the field and fishing pond. Unfortunately, the gate was unhinged – PawPaw had a lot of partially finished projects around the farm – and when I reached the top it tilted backward and I began to fall with it. I clutched the rusted metal bars with both hands, but no one was there to give me a boost or catch me, and when I finally couldn’t hold on any more I let go and hit the ground and the gate fell on top of me and its sharp edge sliced the back of my scalp open. I screamed.
“Ed! Ed!” I heard. “It’s Jason! Come quick!”
I can still see Kieth running towards me in my mind’s eye, though my memory is skewed, literally, because I was on my left side and the world seemed rotated 90 degrees; later in life, I’d read research studies that showed our minds eventually right the wrongs and reconstruct our mind’s eye to “see” things differently than they are for the sake of our mental well being. But, in 1975, I saw Kieth running towards me sideways and in huge leaps and bounds, propelled by legs taller than I was, and I didn’t understand how he was running sideways but didn’t stop screaming or take time to ponder it, but that’s how I still see it. I remember the vision clearly, and can hear my own screams as if I were not the one screaming but an observer recording the situation, and I can still see a sideways Kieth reach me much faster than PawPaw and his little legs could have. Beyond Kieth I saw smoke and burning piles of fire ants, also rotated 90 degrees and obscuring my view of PawPaw, but I knew he was there. He was always there when I needed him. I felt that, and didn’t need to see it. Some things are so right in our mind’s eye that our brains don’t alter our perspectives to satisfy our desire for normalization.
Kieth grabbed the massive gate and heaved it away effortlessly and reached down and picked me up and cradled me, and despite my pain and terror, a tiny part of me felt as safe and secure as I had felt cradled by the oak tree’s branch, and somehow, miraculously, that’s what I felt as my body bled profusely and I screamed incessantly.
“Hurry Ed! He’s hurt bad!” Kieth shouted.
“Get in d’ truck!” PawPaw shouted back between breaths. “Get in d’ passenger side!” I saw him, framed in smoke that was now behind him, and he waved towards the truck and called out, “Go on, now! Go on!”
Kieth cradled me and rushed through the open gate and wrenched open PawPaw’s truck door, an old Ford with metal doors that would stick and creak and groan and resist opening, but they were no match for Keith’s brute strength. The door yielded and we slid in and he slammed it shut with a loud and satisfying crunch, and PawPaw somehow found the same strength and ripped his door open and hopped into the driver’s side of his Ford’s bucket seat. I was bleeding dangerously. Scalp wounds are dangerous because all arteries and veins are exposed against your skull and will not close themselves, especially if you’ve been scalped, and I had a large flap of scalp dangling precariously from my skull, attached only by a small slice of skin and hair. The Ford’s vinyl seat was covered in blood that slid across the slippery plastic in and pooled in depressions and along creases, like dark red rivers flowing from small lakes of blood on the bucket seat. PawPaw didn’t hesitate. He cranked the ignition and peeled out and accelerated towards the blacktop and turned left onto it so quickly that pools of blood splashed across the seat and spilled into Kieth’s passenger side floorboard.
“Oh God, Ed! Oh God! He’s bleedin’ bad! Hurry!”
No one had to tell PawPaw to hurry, he was a force of nature and intensely focused on nothing but saving me. Gravel bounced into the air behind us as his truck tires gained traction on the pavement and we accelerated forward faster than I had ever felt his Ford go.
I was no longer surprised that the world was sideways. I accepted that things weren’t as they seemed, and as I screamed I saw the big stately oak tree by the convenience store. I felt my body wanting to slide against Kieth’s door as PawPaw accelerated through the red traffic light and turned sharply, and I felt Kieth’s strong arm cradle me and keep my head from flopping around as we sped through the intersection with tires screeching against the blacktop and PawPaw pulling the old trucks manual steering with all his might.
PawPaw had never had fixed his truck’s turn signal, but he didn’t need one because he had poked half his small body out the window and was waving his white handkerchief with his left hand and pulling the big steering wheel with his right and shouting at cars coming towards us, “Get out d’ way! Get out d’ way!” and, magically, they all did. His right arm was straining with the force of turning, and his left hand was frantically waving his white hanky and his humble accent was loud and clear, and, miraculously, everyone got out of our way. That’s the last thing I remember before passing out.
I woke up a few days later in Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, where I had been born four years before, and the first thing I saw was PawPaw, exhausted. His wrinkled face was aged by grey beard stubble, the real kind, not Spanish moss. His non glass eye was bloodshot. Both cheeks were puffy. His hair was disheveled. He smelled like cigarettes and chainsaw oil, as usual, but he also smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a few days. He was sideways.
I sat up and he righted along with me, and his eyebrows perked up and he looked at me and smiled and his exhaustion faded away, and he said, cheerfully as ever, “Hey, d’er, Lil’ Buddy. ‘Bout time you woke up.”
I had to stay a few more days and get a more tests for head injuries, but I had fun because the recovery room had a big color television and I could watch Popeye and Friends and the SuperFriends on Saturday morning – we only had a small black and white television at home – and play with the tons of toys stocked in the common room. I wore a bandage around my head that had to be changed daily, and when they changed it on my final day one of the nurses brought in two mirrors so I could see the back of my head. I was bald now, but they said my hair would grow back soon. I strained to see the back of my head, only just realizing how two mirrors worked like magic so that I could see behind myself, but even then I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. PawPaw exclaimed that I had 82 stitches! I must be the bravest lil’ fisherman alive!
I know now that he exaggerated, most doctors put about 3-4 stitches per inch of cut, so I probably only had 20 to 30 stitches, about the number of raised bumps I can still count, from where the skin had been pulled tightly and had healed thickly, but for some reason PawPaw said 82 and that’s the number I’d use when we finally returned home and I talked about my adventure. And, he had to explain to me that Our Lady of the Lake didn’t really have a lake, so we couldn’t go fishing there, but he’d take me when we got home. MawMaw was waiting when we arrived, and she had cookies and milk waiting for both of us, of course. She was much more gentle with her shugga’ for a few weeks, until my hair started to grow back, and then we went back to life as usual, and I felt like the bravest lil’ fisherman alive, happy, still climbing trees, and knowing PawPaw would always be there to catch me or help with a gentle nudge.
Some time later, when I had most of my hair back, I was sittting in the living room, which was also where I slept at night, with Craig, Linda, PawPaw, and MawMaw. Craig and Linda Black had moved back in after Linda had a baby, and the baby was in PawPaw’s second bedroom. Our living room was small, but the doorway was open to the dining room and kitchen and felt larger. We sat around snacking on cookies and watching cartoons: I had become fascinated with Popeye looking so much like PawPaw. Our TV was a small black and white set with manual controls and bunny rabbit antenea; Craig and PawPaw always joked that we lived in a Black and White household, and though I never understood their joke I laughed along with them and munched my cookies. A commercial came on, and I saw Stretch Armstrong advertised again, just like I had on the big color television in the hospital, and I exclaimed that was it! That was what I wanted! Stretch Armstrong had just been released as a new toy and was advertised on Saturday morning cartoons as the next greatest thing on Earth, a rubber toy filled with viscoelastic goo that you could stretch and pull but would always return back to normal. Kids on the commercial stretched him across their chest, like an exercise band, and some of the kids also had Evil Stretch, a black guy on PawPaw’s TV but a green goblin on color TV. I had to have one. PawPaw, laughed and said “We’ll see, Lil’ Buddy,” and took advantage of the commercial to get up and get a bottle of milk from the kitchen, and soon I heard my dad’s voice booming.
It’s an unmistakable voice, deep and resonating and authoritative, the bass tones reverberating through walls that blocked lesser voices. I couldn’t hear PawPaw, but I had no doubt who was visiting and got up and walked into the kitchen with a partially eaten cookie.
PawPaw was standing in the doorway and my dad was in the carport, holding a large brown paper bag with fancy rope handles, the kind you may get when you buy something from an expensive store. He held the bag nonchalantly, but his eyes were intense and focused and his jaw was held tightly, and he towered over PawPaw. Now in the kitchen, I could hear both of them.
“No, Ed,” PawPaw said. “Not t’day. Next week.”
My dad bellowed something about fuck the rules, he’s Jason’s father and he wanted to give him something. He poked his finger down at PawPaw’s chest to emphasize what he said.
“No, Ed,” PawPaw replied. “Please go. Come back next week.”
My dad saw me and said, “Hey, Justin! I mean Jason, godamnit! I brought you something!”
I was excited! My dad had picked me up before, and always had gifts for me. Sometimes, he took me and Kieth to see Big Daddy, and Big Daddy had given me things like a new, fancy fishing rod with reals and gears and convoluted things that didn’t really work in PawPaw’s tiny pond, but was fun to play with and expensive enough that Craig and his friends would inspect it and admire the quality and tell me how lucky I was, and I was anxious to see what was in the paper bag.
He held up the bag and tried to step through the doorway, but PawPaw moved sideways and blocked him.
“Please, Ed, not today.”
My dad’s voice rose and he looked down at PawPaw angrily and thumped his finger against PawPaw’s chest and reiterated that he was my father and I was his son and he was going to give me something and no one would stop him. Craig, Linda, and MawMaw must have heard, and they came into the kitchen and stood beside PawPaw, between my dad and me. Voices raised, and everyone was speaking loudly and I can’t recall what was said, but I can remember the scene. It was somewhat comical, a huge loud man towering over a room full of tiny people.
My dad’s not that big, only 6’1,” and at the time he was thinner than I’d know him later, perhaps only 190 pounds, but the Whites and Blacks were small and thin, and from my perspective my dad towered over them.
Linda was barely taller than Wendy or Debbie, and though Craig was almost as tall as my dad, he was skinny, like a twig, and calm and mellow. He was an artist with big, bushy hair and a scruffy beard, exactly like a popular painter on public television, Bob Ross. PawPaw was Popeye, and Craig was Bob Ross. PawPaw had welcomed him into our household when their baby was born. He wasn’t saying much and was probably high, self admittedly, and he was standing beside Linda as she looked up at my dad and told him in no uncertain terms to leave; I remember that vividly, and 40 years later Craig and I would agree about that evening. Linda was unabashed in her words and actions ever since having a baby, and wanted a calm household. Even my dad was shocked by her ferocity, and he responded by thumping his finger into her chest, and that’s when PawPaw had had enough and stepped forward and shouted for the first and only time I ever heard him shout in anger, and he told my dad to leave.
My dad bellowed an obscenity and shoved PawPaw, and Linda pounced on my dad and began clawing at him. He shoved her away, and PawPaw stepped in again and my dad flung him aside. Craig silently moved in front of my dad and stood there, and MawMaw stood by his side, and not even my dad would shove her. Instead, he plowed between them and grabbed my arm so hard I yelled in surprise, and then PawPaw really stepped into action and hurled himself forward and everyone piled on top of my dad and tried yanking his arm off of me. He knocked them aside with his other hand and its brown paper bag. MawMaw and Linda grabbed my free arm and tried to pull me away from my dad, and he pulled back, and I stretched out like Stretch Armstrong. Everyone was shouting, including me, and through the din we heard Craig and Linda’s baby cry from the back bedroom crib. That sobered everyone, and Linda rushed back and Craig followed, my dad collected his senses and stood silently, and MawMaw bent down and inspected a scratch on my arm that was bleeding. PawPaw stood straight, breathing heavily, and waited patiently to act again.
My dad looked at me and said, “Jason. Son. I brought you something. Do you want it?”
Of course I said yes. I forgot about my bleeding cut and looked at the bag. PawPaw looked at me and then at my dad, and told my dad he could speak with me for five minutes in the carport, and then he had to go and could see me next week. That seemed fair, and my dad held my hand and walked me out the doorway and into the carport. MawMaw came out with a bandaid and put it on my scratch, and said she’d be back with cookies. My dad and I stood beside PawPaw’s Ford and I pointed out the blood stains on the floorboard we couldn’t get out, and at my arm’s bandaide, and said I was the bravest fisherman on Earth. My dad agreed, and we chatted and listened to the crickets chirp and my dad rubbed my stubbly head and told me he loved me and had something for me in the bag. In all the excitement about impending cookies, I had almost forgotten about the bag.
“I think this is what you wanted,” he said, sheepishly. He reached in the fancy bag and pulled out a new Stretch Armstrong, still in its box.
Well, technically, it was Evil Stretch. The black guy on PawPaw’s TV. But, in person, Evil Stretch was green, like I had seen at Our Lady of the Lake, and he had pointy ears and fangs and was even better than the white stretch with blonde hair. I was happy, and opened the box and tried to stretch Evil Stretch but couldn’t. My dad laughed and said I wasn’t big enough, but I would be, and one day I’d be as big and strong as him and maybe even Big Daddy. I was fascinated by that idea, to be so big that everyone talked about you like you were a superhero, and for the next five minutes I rambled on about intergalactic battles between Stretch and Evil Stretch and how I’d practice stretching so I could grow big and strong, too.
The carport door opened and MawMaw stepped outside with cookies. She gave me one and handed a few to my dad, to go. She stood there, waiting, and PawPaw stood in the doorway. My dad told me he loved me, and I said I loved him, too, and he said he’d see me next week and we’d go see Big Daddy and Mamma Jean, and I thought that sounded fun. He left, and I went back inside and showed off my band aide and practiced stretching Evil Stretch. Cartoons were over, and everyone was watching something on the small black and white TV that I can’t recall.
Late that night, after everyone had gone to bed and PawPaw was preparing the living room sofa for me to sleep, I sat on the kitchen table and played with Stretch. I wasn’t strong enough to stretch him, no matter how much I had practiced that day, and I had grown bored with my new toy; the thirty second commercial for Stretch Armstrong accurately showed kids having fun for 30 seconds, about as long as you can have fun with a soft rubber toy that you can’t budge. I told him so. “You’re useless!” I said. “I wish I didn’t have you!” I bellowed. On a whim, I picked up one of PawPaw’s flathead screwdrivers from the kitchen table – he always had tools lying around – and held it like a knife and pointed it at Stretch. I told him to be quiet. In my mind, he wasn’t, so I told him again and held the knife like I had seen Big Daddy hold knives, rotated sideways to penetrate between ribs, lacerating lungs or piercing a heart and causing someone to bleed to death rapidly, not straight up and down and bounching off the rib cage and causing a meer flesh wound. Stretch ignored me and said something, and I shoved the knife into his ribs and quickly removed it, satisfied that I had pierced his heart, as evidenced by him bleeding a clear, viscous goo through the small hole.
He began to deflate, and I came to my senses and realized I had broken Stretch and regretted what I had done. I tried shoving the goo back inside, like the doctors had done to me, and even took off my band aide and tried to patch the hole in his ribs, but every time I tried to move him more goo oozed out his wound.
I began crying, and PawPaw came into the kitchen and saw what had happened. He told me not to worry, I could never do anything wrong, and we’d try to fix Stretch Armstrong like the doctors had fixed me. I didn’t correct him that it was Evil Stretch. Perhaps I was embarassed that I had broken my new toy, or perhaps I was somehow realizing that good and evil aren’t black and white, even then grasping for a metaphor to use years later when writing a book. Or maybe I just trusted PawPaw to make things right. That’s not probably not exactly what I felt or thought, but it’s part of the image I’ve created for myself, and likely a close approximation of the emotions I felt, my first feelings of shame and being forgiven because I was unable to do wrong, and I was being guided away from ignorance by being shown a path towards better feelings. Puck put my story into action.
We tried using super glue to patch the hole, but it didn’t stick. We put him in the freezer because of something about viscoelastic goo slowing down and thickening when cold, and that worked until he warmed up again, and then the goo oozed and he became more and more deflated. Finally, after two days, PawPaw and I agreed that we had done all we could, and that was good enough, and we decided to give Stretch a proper funeral. We said a few words on his behalf, saying what a good Stretch he had been and not Evil at all, wrapped him in the fancy paper bag, and dropped him into the trash can beside the cricket cage, and then went fishing with the cane poles, not Big Daddy’s fancy rod and reel that was gathering dust in a pile of tools beside the cricket cage.
By that Christmas, I was spending long weekends with my dad but hadn’t seen Wendy and Debbie more than once or twice that I can recall; most of my memories around that time centered around Debbie’s magic tricks, and I had mastered removing my thumb and stealing someone’s nose, and was working on making a cookie disappear while someone’s eyes were closed. I hadn’t thought about Stretch in a long time, probably because PawPaw had bought me an Old Henry pocket knife, like the one Boy Scouts used, and had taught me to use it on things around the house so I’d be less curious about what a knife could do. I would emulate him by carefully unfolding it and making sure it was sharp before using it, and that knife had become a game more fun than stretching Evil Stretch or seeing if a screwdriver were sharp enough to puncture his ribs.
PawPaw told me my dad was coming and to put my knife in my pocket or backpack filled with clothes, though only moderately packed because southern winters are so mild.
“Hey Justin – I mean Jason, goddamnit! – are you ready to go see Mamma Jean and Big Daddy?”
Of course I was. Mamma Jean mean oatmeal raisin cookies and fried catfish and playing with Tiffany, and Big Daddy meant a new fishing rod or football and I got to be around a lot of men bigger than even Keith and they all kept telling me I’d be that big one day, so of course I wanted to grow through osmosis and spend time with dad and Big Daddy and Keith and all those guys I got mixed up a lot down at the Local.
I said goodbye to PawPaw and got some shugga’ from MawMaw and climbed into the back of my dad’s new sports car. Keith was in the front, though smaller than I remembered him. My dad would have been about 21 or 22 years old by then and Keith would have been about 16 or 17.
“Man,” Keith said, “I love this car.” He kept running his hand over the leather seats and massaging the stick shift. He barely acknowledged I was there and asked to drive and was told to shut up, but he kept talking about the car.
“A 1971 Chevy Super Sport,” he said. “Man, Edward! Can you imagine driving this at Pelican?”
He was talking about the Pelican Speedway, Big Daddy’s racetrack that had been renamed the Baton Rouge International and artificially packed with attendees so that Big Daddy could sell it to an unsuspecting out of state investor. The track had been built by Local #5 Teamsters who had driven away from other job sites with all the materials and miraculously paid during one of Louisiana’s many economic down turns. Keith had grown up racing on that track and riding with Big Daddy’s “gangster Teamsters” and loved my dad’s car as much as I loved my Old Henry.
“Come on!” He pleaded, “Let’s see what she can do!”
It was a very loud and very fast car, and we swished and swooped down the back roads to Mamma Jean’s house faster than my dad and Keith could finish a joint. They seemed to have the time of their lives, and only slowed down as we pulled into Mamma Jean’s.
Mamma Jean lived in Houston, so we weren’t really at her house. But she visited Janice at her home in Baton Rouge and that’s when my dad would see her and I naturally assumed it was Mamma Jean’s house, and that’s where Janice and Tiffany and lived and I got to play with Tiffany and eat cookies and catfish while my dad and Keith talked with Mamma Jean and Janice. They were always so nice to me that I couldn’t help but look forward to visiting, and this time they even had presents for me under the tree that I’d get after dinner. The adults stayed around the tree and Tiffany and I went to her room to work on her school art project.
Tiffany was an artist, and the most popular girl in Kindergarten, I had heard from some of her friends who were there when I had visited once. They always talked about her art, and I was excited to help with this assignment.
“I need to draw a crocodile,” she said. “Where he lives. Momma got me this book…” she handed me a thin children’s book of different animals drawn somewhat realistically. “But all they have is an alligator.”
I told her I knew the difference, and she was surprised. I told her that of course alligators were bigger, and I had seen lots riding on my dad’s shoulders as he took me hunting near his house and hiking through the bayou to his garden on a hill in the swamp. I told her I even got to hold the shotgun a bunch of times, except when we had to crawl through the culvert to get under the road. For a reason I don’t understand, probably from the excitement of youth and confusing memories with dreams, I said I had even shot an alligator from my dad’s shoulders. But that wasn’t true. I had missed; or, the bird shot I was using had bounced off its thick hide. I had shot and killed rabbits, though, and knew I could shoot an alligator the next time I saw one. To be sure, I had talked about it with PawPaw, and MawMaw had overheard and bought me books that had more details than Tiffany’s, including the difference between an alligator and a crocodile.
We drew it together. She did most of the work, I just kept pointing to the nose and saying to make it bigger and more round to add more teeth. Alligators and crocodiles were fierce. Crocodiles had bigger noses and livd in Florida and Australia; alligators were in Louisiana. Both had lots of teeth.
Despite my input, Tiffany’s crocodile was almost friendly looking. She couldn’t help but draw things that seemed nicer than they were, in my mind.
Mamma Jean came in and asked if we were ready for cookies, and of course we were.
“Jason,” she added. “After a cookie, I’d like to cut your hair.”
She didn’t wait for a response and turned and walked towards the kitchen and I ate more than one cookie before she stopped me and walked me out the kitchen door and through the carport to the narrow storage room where Janice kept her old barber’s chair and one of those domed hair dryers that ladies pulled down over their heads while reading magazines. The last time, when I had stayed with my dad a few days before visiting, she had washed my hair in the bathroom sink before we walked to the storage room. But this time MawMaw had just washed my hair and Mamma Jean sat me in the barber chair for a dry cut. She pumped up the chair height and simultaneously whipped me around to look into a big mirror against the wall just opposite of the door. I slammed to a halt and saw both of us in the reflection.
Mamma Jean was a gorgeous redhead; though I was one of the few in on her secret, that she dyed her hair. She kept it in an immaculate bun and never smelled of hair spray like MawMaw always had. And while MawMaw made chocolate chip cookies from a convenience store tube, Mamma Jean spent all day reproducing the recipe she had published in her church’s cookbook; I had a copy, though I couldn’t read it, but she had seemed so proud to share it with Tiffany and me and had made a meticulous ink mark near her name, Norma Jean Partin, when I asked where her name was. Back then, Damon was just a hint in Janice’s belly and Jessica a gleam in Theresa’s eye and Tiffany and I were Mamma Jean’s only grandchildren and she doted on us as much as she could the few times I saw her. In our reflection, it’s obvious that we’re related: we have the same eyes as my dad, Janice, and Tiffany. She had his blond hair; but, both Mamma Jean and Grandma Foster had said he originally had strawberry blonde hair, and that’s where I got my red hair. All of my other cousins would inherit Big Daddy’s sky blue eyes and most would share Tiffany’s blonde hair. All of us would grow up with Mamma Jean’s recollection of our hair styles and colors and stories of how our hair changed over time.
“Hmmph,” she exclaimed as she explored the back of my head.
“That scar’s going to be hard to hide.” She flicked my hair this way and that.
“Hmmph. And I don’t remember that bump.” She fingered the dent in my head – not a bump – that’s pretty obvious on my now balding head. But the divet is slow to form and the abrupt raise does, in fact, feel like a bump.
“Hmmph. Well, let’s get to work.”
She clipped and chopped and rotated me this way and that and I giggled like I had when Wendy and Debbie had taken me to Fun Fair Park to ride the whirly-dirty tea cups. When she finished, she said it looked much better but I didn’t notice the difference. Then she did a magic trick and let me see the back of my head, like the nurse had in the hospital, and we stayed there for a while until I could hold the small mirror and see the back of my head. I couldn’t see the scar or the divet, and Mamma Jean had to part my hair and show me the scar. It was cool, a giant letter C in the mirror, and I would have preferred it if she hadn’t emphasized the scar rather than spending so much time hiding it.
Back inside, we devoured some catfish and Mamma Jean told me to slow down and to chew my food before swallowing and a few other things that took the joy out of a plate of fried catfish covered in ketchup. Mamma Jean made the best fried catfish. That recipe was in her cookbook, too. Besides using fresh catfish, the secret was to let the egg batter dry a bit before frying and to use hot peanut oil so that the crust stayed crunchy and didn’t soak up the oil.
Janice joked about Big Daddy’s love of Mamma Jean’s catfish. Mamma Jean leaned back and laughed deeply and told Tiffany and me about how when she had met her first suitor – I had no idea what that was – he had said he didn’t like catfish.
“And I knew he wasn’t the one,” she said, matter-of-factly. “But when Big Daddy called on me the next week, he ate three helpings!” She and Janice laughed at that and Tiffany and I laughed with them because they were laughing, but my dad raised his voice and said he didn’t come over to talk about Daddy. Janice looked flustered, and Mamma Jean looked mad. Keith, as usual, kept silent around his siblings and used the awkward silence to put another helping of catfish on his plate. My dad moved his mouth closer to his plate and woofed down his ketchup soaked fish.
Mamma Jean said she’d do dishes, an unsubtle hint that dinner was over, and Janice perked up and told me that I could open my present. In a bit of foreshadowing, Tiffany said she had helped make it, so it was from both of them. My dad could open his, too, they said.
We all moved into the living room and waited for Mamma Jean to come in after clearing the table. By then we had our gifts in front of us. Keith would have to wait, everyone said, because he’d be over for Christmas. I opened my gift from Mamma Jean – socks and a collard shirt – and Tiffany got excited and pushed the other gift towards me. I tore open the wrapping and held up a framed sketch of a black shadow of a boy wearing a baseball cap and flying a kite against a cream colored background. It looked cool, and I assumed Tiffany had drawn it but she told me to look closer and Janice beamed as I realized it was not a shadow, it was a bunch of words written really small in the form of a boy flying a kite.
Janice ran her finger across the print and under the tiny words and said, “It says Jason Ian Partin, again and again, so you’ll always know you’re part of our family.”
By then I recognized my name, Jason and Partin, but I had never seen or heard my middle name before, and I was proud to be Jason Ian Partin, pronounced in the Baton Rouge way of “E-an,” reminiscent of the French influence. I don’t know if I liked it that much, but I remember feeling that it was special if only for the energy Janice gave me when telling me I was a part in her family and the beaming look of Tiffany, who had helped Janice by telling her how I had been wearing a hat so often after my accident and how we had flown a kite together the last time I visited. I put the socks and shirt in my backpack but held on to the framed art.
None of us recall what Janice and Tiffany gave my dad, but Mamma Jean gave him a bible and she and Janice told him that they’d pray for him and he threw the Bible down and said they could shove it up their ass.
“Edward!” Momma Jean snapped, and then told him to watch his mouth and that pissed him off more and he said something about fuck Jesus and Janice began shouting at him and Momma Jean probably would have told us to leave but my dad grabbed me and said we were leaving. Keith said he’d stay; my dad said fine, and we left quickly. I barely had time to throw on my backpack and clutch my print before we were back in the Chevy and loudly accelerating onto I-110 and flying above downtown Baton Rouge on the raised interstate towards Grandma Foster’s house and Big Daddy. It must have been a bit farther than PawPaw’s, because my dad was able to finish a whole joint by the time we arrived.
I don’t recall what Big Daddy gave me that time – provably something to do with hunting or fishing – but I vividly recalled what happened when my dad raised his voice at Big Daddy and pointed his finger up into his face. Big Daddy never stopped smiling and in what seemed like slow motion pulled out his big elk skinning pocket knife. Not the one he’d where on his belt some times, usually after coming back from his hunting cabin in Flagstaff or somewhere in Colorado, but the folding one he carried around town. I think it was a Buck, the ubiquitous locking blade deer knife with a wooden handle. No matter which knife it was, I was unsure how he opened it so smoothly and quickly with one hand – I couldn’t do that with my Old Henry – nor did I see how he managed to grab a handful of the back my dad’s long black hair. In a smooth, quick move, smoother and subtler than the actors of TV wrestling, he swung my dad around and down and held the Buck blade to my dad’s upturned face. Big Daddy was still smiling, and I thought he was about to give my dad a haircut, but he didn’t.
He said, “Son, never point your finger in my face again.”
My dad didn’t reply. It was the first time I had seen him remain silent around anyone. Big Daddy was that impressive.
The drive back to my dad’s home took almost two joints and we didn’t talk about Mamma Jean’s gift again that visit, nor did we go back to Grandma’s for Christmas dinner. Instead, we went hunting in the bayou near our house and I shot a rabbit and we skinned it and made rabbit jambalaya with lots of ketchup.
I asked my dad if Santa Claus would find me at this house. I was in so many houses that I lost track and couldn’t imagine Santa Claus doing better. And Jesus? Mamma Jean said Christmas was his birthday, and I didn’t know if he’d know where I was, either.
My dad got really mad at that and shouted that Jesus was fake bullshit and so was Santa Claus, then he raised both middle fingers towards the sky and yelled, “Goddamn you! Fuck you, God! Fuck you!!!” and he looked at me and pointed his finger at my face and said, “See. Nothing happened. Bullshit.”
I was unsure how that proved anything, but I didn’t ask about Jesus again. I did ask about Santa, and my dad said he’d prove that Santa wasn’t real, too. He said there were no presents under our tree – a surprisingly nice but undecorated one cut down from the woods near his house – and said that there would be none tomorrow, Christmas Day, and that would prove that Santa Clause wasn’t real. But, he said, he had a gift for me and gave me a brown paper bag meticulously wrapped and taped with care and obviously in the shape of a rifle. I tore through it, expecting a Red Rider BB gun and determined not to put my eye out, like PawPaw had in the navy. But, to my surprise, it was a 22. A second gift meticulously wrapped in the colorful Sunday comics, was a big box of .22 long rifle rounds. I now owned, like the boys on TV westerns only dreamed of, a hunting rifle of my own.
My dad was right and there’s no Santa Claus, but he must have felt badly Christmas morning and told me not to tell Mr. White – which is what most people called PawPaw – or Mamma Jean or Tiffany or any other kids whose parents lied to them. I told him it would be our secret, just like the garden on the hill after the culvert, and how we occasionally hunted deer and rabbits and alligators out of season. He also said he’d hold on to my rifle because Mr. White didn’t want me to have one yet, but that it was mine and he would never let anyone take it from me, and he’d never let anyone take me from him again. He said he loved me and he hugged me tightly and I said I loved him, too, and we went off into a field by the woods and shot beer cans until I emptied that box of ammo.
Eleven years later, I’d score a perfect score on the U.S. army’s marksmanship test, just like Audie Murphy. He, too had learned to shoot with a .22 when he was a kid growing up in Texas and hunting rabbits. I’d never know if I were a better shot than Audie – he died soon before I was born – but I’m pretty sure I would be. Shooting rabbits is a great way to learn because it’s a moving target, but there’s something deeply informative about going through an entire box of ammo shooting beer cans: you can see your grouping and your misses and realize that you’re not as good of a shot as you think you are, especially when bouncing around on someone’s shoulders as they mimic wading through the swamp so I could practice shooting alligators. Audie had been so poor he never could practice like that, and when you go through an entire box of ammo and see yourself improve at hitting beer cans in a single evening, you learn that you can learn and improve, and every time I’d visit my dad I’d concentrate and get better and better.
But, when I won a few marksman competitions later in life I’d never quite be sure that it was that Christmas Day that put me ahead of the other so-called experts, because I kept my word and never talked about what I did with my dad to anyone. In fact, to this day,I’ve never told anyone that there’s no Santa Claus.
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