Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
“Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”Matthew 16:24
I woke up on a Saturday in the summer of 1976 to the sound of PawPaw’s voice.
“Hey, d’er, Lil’ Buddy,” he said. “‘ Bout time you woke up.”
I sat up from my bed on the couch, stretched my arms above my head, and smiled back at PawPaw. He had already shaved, and his black hair was slicked back. He smelled of aftershave, coffee, and fresh cigarette smoke. The bright white kitchen light was on, but the living room was lit by the yellow-orange rising sun. I hopped off the couch, hugged PawPaw, and scrambled to the bathroom for my turn, before everyone else woke up.
I was right, PawPaw had smoked on the toilet again, and the bathroom reeked of Camels and pooh with a healthy splash of Old Spice that, cruelly, tempted me to take deep breaths as I peed; I wouldn’t have to pooh until after breakfast, and I was too little to drink coffee and “lubricate the pipes,” which I think helped you pooh earlier. By the time I flushed, washed my hands, and put on the clothes PawPaw had set aside, MawMaw was already in line outside the door. She was waiting for me as soon as I stepped out.
“Gimme some shugga!” she said, looking down at me.
I giggled and hid my face. She squatted down to eye level and peeked through my defenses.
“I’m gonna get me some shugga!” she said, ramping up the pace of her words.
I shielded my face, but I was no match for MawMaw’s shugga. She said she was gonna get some shugga, and her face darted between my elbows like a Kingfisher swooping in between branches to snatch a minnow from PawPaw’s fishing pond. She planted a few smooches on my cheeks and I screeched and giggled and wiggled my arms into convoluted and ineffective defensive positions.
“Shhh…” she said. “You’ll wake the baby. Now go on and help PawPaw with breakfast.”
I dried my face with At least she didn’t have lipstick on yet; that shugga was hard to wipe off. I scooted into the kitchen while MawMaw took her turn in the bathroom, and helped PawPaw mix milk into instant pancake batter. By the time MawMaw emerged, the bathroom que included Craig and Linda; the baby was still asleep. Craig looked stoned; Linda looked exhausted; MawMaw looked like MawMaw: thick maroon lipstick, and mostly grey hair twirled into a two-foot tall beehive held in place by prodigious amounts of aresol hairspray. When she woke me up, she smelled like hairspray and the K&B drugstore makeup carousel. Craig and Linda never woke me up, and had only recently moved back home with the baby. They slept in my old bedroom, across from the bathroom and adjacent to a hallway mirror that was taller than I was.
PawPaw and MawMaw lived in a two bedroom, one bath house with uneven floors and torn screens on the windows. The kitchen door opened onto a carport where MawMaw parked her car and PawPaw kept his cricket cage; you could hear them chirping all day and night. Out front, through the living room door, the gravel driveway was sprinkled with a few old trucks and cars. Out back, through the screen-less kitchen window, was the big gate with handhold sized metal bars between us and the pasture with PawPaw’s fishing pond. The kitchen doubled as a dining room, but the table was piled so high with old tools, economy size boxes of diapers, and my train set that we usually ate standing up around the kitchen counters, which were remarkably Spartan so that it was easy to mix pancakes and clean up for the next wave of breakfast eaters and MawMaw’s World Famous chocolate chip cookies for afternoon snacks after a long day of working on the farm and fishing.
MawMaw threatened to give me some red lipstick shugga, and I screeched again; in earnest that time, because the lipstick was hard to scrub off and the bathroom would be occupied for a long time.
“You ready to see Wendy today?” MawMaw asked. I was unsure what she was talking about.
Sensing my confusion, PawPaw said, “Wendy and Debbie gonna pick you up after breakfast, Lil’ Buddy. Y’all gonna deliver the Yellow Pages today.”
At that, I remembered: Wendy and Debbie were the ones who drove me around town while they dropped off books. I got to ride on top of a stack of them, sitting taller than everyone. If memory served me, we also stopped at the 7-11 and got Slushies, and played in the park down the blacktop road from PawPaw’s, the one with the Merry Go Round, and either Debbie or Wendy had a Frisbee to toss around. I perked up and said I was ready to go to work!
PawPaw had a lot of side-gigs. I was able to work at all of them except the one at Glen Oaks High School, where Linda and Craig used to go every day. Wendy and Debbie, too. In fact, most of PawPaw’s employees seemed to have worked at Glen Oaks before. Delivering Yellow Pages happened every spring (I’d later learn it was through Kelly’s Girls, and that PawPaw paid the entire $512/month to Wendy and Debbie) and cutting down trees happened every summer (PawPaw ran a program to train ex-cons to be landscapers and tree surgeons). PawPaw let me carry my own saw, and taught me to climb trees like he did, and showed me where people like Craig worked; he had recently left Glen Oaks to be the landscaper and resident artist of Houmas Plantation, but they didn’t make much money, and after Linda had the baby they moved back in with us.
MawMaw was Dorris Lamar Shackleton, of the Baton Rouge Lamar family. They were rich, relatively speaking, and everyone in town knew the Lamars. They owned 80% of all the roadside signs in America; they’d eventually become a publicly traded company based in Baton Rouge, Lamar Advertising. If you ever drive down an interstate and see a billboard with the small green rectangular Lamar logo on the bottom, that’s a sign that you’re connected to MawMaw and this story.
We ate standing up, the baby woke up and cried loud enough to drown out the crickets, and MawMaw cleaned up our plates while PawPaw and I went for a walk to the convenience store. It was only a half mile down the blacktop, away from the park, and we walked through grass and navigated between a few trees to get to the sprawling stately oak across from the store. I ran ahead, knowing exactly where I wanted to go: one of the long, undulating branches had a perfect swing seat curved into the branch, and about five feet distal of the trunk was a spot low enough for me to reach and kick a leg over. I hopped on, and then froze, paralyzed by how much higher the swing seat seemed now that I was looking down at the ground.
PawPaw walked up beside me, smiling and looking me in the eyes. He was only 5’2″, but that was high for me. The swing was at least a foot higher up, and five feet away. It seemed impossible to reach.
“You good, Lil’ Buddy. Just move a bit at a time. Just a bit, then relax and do it again.”
I scooted forward an inch, sat up, and scooted forward again. I had to get out of the low spot and onto the thicker branch, and PawPaw was next to me, between the tree and the convenience store, smiling and calm. I focused. I had never done this part without his help; today would be the day I did it on my own. I took a deep breath and exhaled, like PawPaw had shown me. I placed my hands solidly on the bark and took another breath, and heaved myself over the small yet formidable ridge that had stymied my climb too many times before. It worked! I was taller than PawPaw!
“D’at’s right! You did it all by yer’self!”
I glanced down at PawPaw, who still had his hands raised to my waist. Ha! I no longer needed that help, and I scooted along the tree to my swing and slipped down inside of it. But, instead of celebrating, I realized I was facing the tree trunk and couldn’t see anything but the bark. Turning around on a branch was harder than climbing it (I’d learn how to do that another day) and I froze again. I wasn’t scared; something about the extra two feet of high made the ground irrelevant, as if my mind couldn’t see it because my hands couldn’t reach the swing when I was on the ground, whereas the lower nook was within reach and therefore within my imagination and memories of other falls. I froze because I didn’t know what to do to turn around, especially locked in with at least three things touching the tree – two feet and a hand or two hands and a foot – the basics of climbing PawPaw had taught me since I was knee-high to a cricket. I tried to lift one leg, but couldn’t get a foot high enough to stand and almost tilted out of the swing.
PawPaw’s hands were instantly around my waist, and he heaved a bit – PawPaw was wiry but not very strong – and he told me to swing my foot around again. I did, and with the extra height PawPaw gave me I was soon facing away, able to see the wide open meadow, traffic light, and convenience store. I giggled with delight and reached up and snatched a bunch of Spanish moss speckled grey like MawMaw’s hair. I put it to my chin and laughed. PawPaw grabbed a bit and did the same, and we laughed together, two old men with grey beards and nothing to do but laugh about it.
He put away his beard and heaved me to the ground. I kept my moss and held his hand as we walked closer to the traffic light. We waited for it to turn green, and skidoodled across quickly, in case a driver turned left without looking for walkers. In the parking lot, I let go of PawPaw’s hand and pushed open the door for him with one hand, and held my beard to my face with the other.
At the sound of the door bell, the old black man behind the counter looked up.
“G’mornin’, Mr. White.” he said with a broad smile. “Who you got here with you today?” he said, looking down at me.
“It’s me!” I exclaimed, whipping off my disguise.
“What? I didn’t recognize you, Mr. Pa’tan. You gettin’ good at d’ose disguises. Did you climb the tree today?”
I told him I did it by myself that day. PawPaw went to get cookie dough, and I stayed and talked to the man about climbing, as if I were already a tree surgeon. PawPaw returned with a tube of the chocolate chip dough with a giggling cookie man on the packaging, a quart of Blue Bell milk, and a six pack of Miller Lite pony bottles; without being asked, the man reached up and pulled down a carton of unfiltered Camels. PawPaw asked for lighter fluid, and the man reached behind him and put a rectangular can of Zippo fuel beside the Camels. We said our goodbyes, and parted ways. We never climbed after the store – the milk and beers would get warm – but I eyed it as we walled by. It seemed smaller; I didn’t see the lower nook, I just saw the swing seat now, as if the tree were condensing in on it and the lower, distal branches didn’t register in my mind.
Back home, the baby was sitting in her high chair and Linda was laughing with her between sips of her coffee. Craig still looked stoned; he would seem that way 45 years later, when he retired from Houmas and the Baton Rouge Advocate highlighted his art work, which is still on display with a photo of him looking stoned, his bushy white-man afro and beard turned the exact shade of grey as Spanish moss in wintertime. He was Craig Black, and though I don’t recall him telling me his favorite joke that morning, I’m sure he said it at some point that day, especially if we turned on the old black and white television to watch Saturday morning cartoons: We lived in a Black and White household. PawPaw looked a lot like PopEye (someone I don’t recall once called Linda Olive oil and me Sweet Pea), and Craig could have passed for the PBS painter Bob Ross, who also looked stoned all the time.
We wouldn’t watch cartoons that Saturday. MawMaw made sure I took advantage of the empty bathroom, and I pooped and brushed my teeth and was back in the kitchen just in time to hear gravel crunching loudly, telling us someone was driving up the driveway. MawMaw said that was Wendy, and by the tone of her voice alone I was happy. PawPaw opened the kitchen door and I followed him past the crickets, MawMaw’s fancy four-door car, and a mountain of Yellow Pages. Debbie and Wendy were just getting out of PawPaw’s old Datsun hatchback; it had been in our front yard forever, not running, but PawPaw could fix anything.
I rushed up to Debbie’s side of the car, and she squatted down so I could throw my hands around her neck; my forgetting her name was forgotten as soon as I saw her. Of course I knew Debbie! She did magic tricks. She hugged me back, we parted, and she reached towards my face and ripped off my nose.
“Got your nose!” she said, holding my nose clenched between the first two fingers of her fist. I giggled as if she were trying to give me shugga,’ but of course I knew it was her thumb; she had taught me how to do it last month, but I had forgotten to practice.
“Hey, Jason,” Wendy said, squatting down on the driver’s corner of the car.
I rushed over and ripped off her nose.
“Wow! How’d you do that?” she said. Wendy wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed; I showed her what I did, and she tried but couldn’t do it right. I showed her again. After a few more tries, she could snatch a nose almost as good as Debbie. I’ve never had to practice that trick since, and I’m sure we both learned something that morning.
PawPaw said we should get busy, so we got busy loading Yellow Pages into the Datsun. By the time we finished, the Datsun’s aging shocks sagged a few inches lower, and my spot on the stack behind Debbie’s seat barely had enough room for me to squeeze atop. After ensuring I’d fit, PawPaw and the girls stood back, smoked cigarettes, and admired our handiwork. As soon as they put out their butts, PawPaw reminded them they should get going. MawMaw came out with my backpack, and Linda stood in the doorway with the baby and waved to Wendy with her free hand. PawPaw squished my backpack atop the books, and I wiggled up beside it. The girls hopped in front, and Wendy, who never quite got the hang of a manual transmission, lurched forward across the gravel, stopped at the blacktop, and sent gravel flying up as she turned right onto the blacktop, towards the park and Baker neighborhoods in desperate need of Yellow Pages.
Almost immediately, Debbie whipped out her little hand-sewn decorative bag full of toys and dropped a bit of herb into the Frisbee on her lap. She used her rolling papers to scrape up the herb and let the seeds roll down with a sound not unlike gravel trickling down a shovel blade, and then she rolled a thin but perfectly shaped joint. She put the herb back in her bag and used a store-bought lighter to light the joint. It all happened in less time than it took to pass the park.
She cracked her window and handed the joint to Wendy, who was driving in 5th gear by then and didn’t need her hand on the stickshift. Wendy took a drag, coughed, exhaled into the windshield, and handed the joint back to Debbie, who looked up to the crack in her window and exhaled out. She took another drag and passed back to Wendy, and somehow talked with me without exhaling, albeit with a funny voice and look on her face.
“You can get someone’s nose,” she said, smiling slyly, “but everyone ‘knows’ it’s your thumb.” Wendy guffawed at that and coughed for a while with the joint clasped in a hand as she held the steering wheel. Debbie exhaled out the window and turned back to face me. She held up the back of her hand, reached over, and yanked off her own thumb. There it was, clearly in her other hand. I looked back and forth between her thumb and the stub on her hand, laughing in surprise; or, I was getting second-hand high and simply laughing. Regardless, Debbie and I focused on me getting my thump at the right angle to do the trick and Wendy focused on driving us to work safely as she and Debbie passed the joint back and forth.
A mouse was inside the Datsun’s dashboard, Debbie said, explaining the squeaking that emanated from just above the broken radio. Wendy was distracted, tapping the dashboard and trying to make the mouse stop. It seemed to get louder the faster we drove, and her taps became slaps. Debbie laughed and said she was scaring the mouse, but Wendy wasn’t laughing. She was slapping harder and harder, and her face tightened and she slammed a fist down onto the dashboard.
“Uggh!” she shouted intensely enough for me to jerk back in my perch atop the Yellow Pages.
“Here, Wendy,” Debbie said, handing her the joint. “Slow down. Mr. White’s car can’t move that fast with all these books.”
Wendy took the joint and heeded Debbie’s advice, and Debbie looked up at me and said, “It’s okay, Jason. There’s no mouse. It’s just an old car that squeaks when we drive too fast. Wendy’ll slow down, and we’ll help with the phone books so we don’t have to drive fast again.”
That made sense, and by the end of the joint we reached the first neighborhood in Baker that needed Yellow Pages. We worked hard all morning, Debbie and me taking turns carrying a book up to a doorstep, and Wendy lurching from house to house until the Datsun was empty.
Our last stop was the house Craig and Linda used to live in with their friends, the one with all the murals of elves and swamp trees covered with moss painted outside. My friend, Brian the one handed drug dealer, lived there, too. I hadn’t realized he knew Wendy and Debbie – I knew him from Linda and Craig – but he and Wendy were such good friends that when he hugged her with his one arm he picked her up and squeezed her and she laughed and kissed him on the cheek. He hugged Debbie just as snugly, but she didn’t kiss him. I realized it made sense that Brian would know her: he could do magic, too.
“Hey, Jason,” he said, squatting down and holding up his hand for me to high-five. “You wanna see how the motorcycle is coming along?”
Of course I did. He walked me over while Wendy and Debbie smoked with the friends from Glen Oaks who spent all day at the house, smoking and painting.
Brian had lost his arm a few years before, when a drunk driver hit him on his motorcycle. He kept the bike and fixed it, but couldn’t ride with only one arm, so he was trying to invent a series of wires and pulleys that would let him ride again.
“You gotta have something to look forward to.” he told me once. “I work on it whenever I want to imagine the future.”
Brian locked an arm around me and tilted his hip to heave me onto the seat, and tried to explain all the contraptions. The hardest was the brakes, he said. He had re-routed the clutch, but didn’t want to have both brakes on one cable; he explained why, but I don’t recall his words; I wouldn’t understand until ten years later, when I almost flipped over my handlebars after slamming both brakes at the same time.
I wasn’t really listening to Brian. I was high, atop a motorcycle, and making “mmm-mmm… ppptt-ppptt” sounds like the book Linda or Debbie or Wendy had read me, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, about a kid and a talking mouse who could make the toy motorcycle move by making motor sounds. I was obviously disappointed that it wasn’t working, and Brian stopped talking and said he had something for me.
He pulled a 1972 Kennedy half dollar out of his blue jeans pocket, rolled it across his knuckles, and tossed it into the air, where it vanished. (It didn’t really vanish in mid air; he finger palmed it instead of tossing it, but followed the motion with his eyes and so did I, and I remember his surprise and belief that it vanished more than I recall seeing it vanish, which was a bigger lesson I’d learn later.) He reached down by his leg and said the coin was behind his trick knee. He pulled it out, and I was too young to be impressed by that; if it can vanish, of course it can appear anywhere. He showed me the date and said that’s the same year I was born, so it was a special coin. Like with the vanish, he believed it was a magic coincidence, and that sentiment is what I remember most of all: my birth was so important that it’s forever on a coin bigger than any of the small ones people at convenience stores used.
Brian pointed out the square hole above Kennedy’s profile.
“How’d that get there?” he asked.
I said a drill. He said more than asked if I had ever seen a square drill? I said I hadn’t, and then I realized that I had never seen a square hole.
“That’s the magic,” he said. “Keep it and let me know when you figure out how to make a square hole in a coin.”
I stared at the hole and pondered how I’d do it. Brian wrapped an arm around me and tilted his hip to whip me off the bike and back onto the ground.
“Here,” he said, reaching into his pocket again. He pulled out a beaded necklace that I’d later recognize as an army dog tag chain, and held out his hand. I wasn’t sure what to do.
“You can wear it as a necklace.”
I was still unsure what to do.
“Show me the hole,” he said. I did, and he tried to thread the chain through the hole, but fumbled. He tried a few more times and showed a hint of frustration; subtle, but noticeable in hindsight, if only because it was less than his usual cheerful self. I held the half tightly, and he finally aligned a bead of the chain with the hole, and pushed with his thumb while his two fingers held the back. The chain slid through, and he told me to push the bead into the other end. I struggled like he had, but eventually figured out how to clasp it. He draped the necklace over my neck, and we high-fived and walked back to the group.
Debbie was too stoned to toss Frisbee, so I listened to everyone chat and practiced taking the half on and off my necklace; rolling it across my fingers was impossible, and as many times as I tried tossing it in the air, it never vanished. But, I got really good at the necklace clasp, and I stared at the square hole long enough to realize it was actually two holes, a square on the eagle side, and a diamond on Kennedy’s side; they met in the middle and formed a star of David. I’m sure that was just a coincidence, an artifact of Brian not aligning the square head of a big nail perfectly, or not keeping it still with his big toes when he used his hand to hit the nail with a hammer; he never told me how he did it, but to this day that’s what I think happened, and I don’t think Brian was jewish.
Someone opened a 16 ounce bag of Raisenettes and a plastic bag of chocolate chip cookies wrapped around a rigid plastic tray – those cookies were dry and crumbly, not like MawMaw’s, but I dove into them with the rest of the people, who seemed to moan with pleasure despite the cookies not being fresh from the oven. The Raisinettes were as good as always, and I devoured a few extra handfuls when no one was looking.
“Oh, shit!” Wendy exclaimed, looking at her watch.
“Jason, we have to go,” she said, standing up suddenly.
She turned to the group and said she had to get me back to Mr. White’s. Debbie said she’d stay and get a ride with someone else so we could get back in time, and a few minutes later Wendy and I were lurching down the road and then up the onramp onto I-110 South, back towards the airport and a faster way to reach PawPaw’s. She said something about we’d get Slushies and toss Frisbee at the park next time, but I wasn’t listening. I felt full and sleepy, and I was comfortable in the spacious front seat; I dozed off to the memory of playing with Wendy and Debbie on the Merry Go Round and spilling my Slushie and everyone laughing as if nothing mattered.
I woke to the feeling of being shaken and the sound of Wendy’s voice. We weren’t moving, and a massive face was peering in her window.
“My brother’s sick,” she told the face. “I’m trying to get home as fast as I can.”
She shook my shoulder again, and I leaned forward and looked at the face. He seemed nice; I can’t tell you why I felt that, especially because I didn’t know what a policeman was yet, but he had a polite smile and kind eyes and I liked him. He was probably 30 to 35 years old; Wendy would have been around 20. He was holding her driver’s license.
“Hey, there, son,” he said. He paused, and I had time to adjust to a new voice and look him in the eyes.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Jason Pa’tan, s’uh,” I said.
He looked down at Wendy’s license and back up at me.
“Thank you, Mr. Pa’tan. I hope you feel better.”
He handed Wendy her license and said, “Here you go, Miss Pa’tan. Get home safely.”
He stood upright, tapped the doorsill twice, smiled, and walked back to his car. I watched him walk away, impressed that he had a chest with a bright badge and lots of nifty looking gadgets on his belt, like Adam West’s Batman utility belt on Saturday afternoon TV. I wanted those gadgets, and a car with lights on top like his.
We drove away slowly, barely lurching at all. Wendy’s hands were shaking, even after she reached fifth and clutched the steering wheel tightly with both hands. She breathed deeply and lit a cigarette; the window was still open. She was making a sound like laughing quietly, but not in a fun way.
When she finished her smoke, she tossed out the cigarette, rolled up the window, smiled at me, and said, “Don’t tell Mr. White what happened, okay?”
I said okay, though I wasn’t sure not to tell him.
We got off I-110 at the airport exit, near the convenience store and tree swing, and were home a minute later. The wheels crunched gravel as we pulled behind MawMaw’s fancy car, and I hopped out as soon as we were stopped, before Wendy turned off the engine. Both feet landed with a satisfying crunch, and I MawMaw opened the carport door. She smiled and stood with her hands on her hips, and I could hear my own footsteps as I ran towards her.
When I could hear the crickets, she squatted down to my level. I threw my hands around her neck and squeezed, and she said, “Gimme some shugga!” I pulled away and threw up my defenses; she won, and after the bloody battle my face was covered in red lipstick. I could feel the smears as I tried to wipe them off, and knew what I’d see in the bathroom mirror when I went to wash my hands. I waved goodbye to Wendy, who was holding my backpack. I ran to her and she kneeled down, waiting for me. I grabbed the pack, and hugged her goodbye.
I was in a hurry, I said. I had smelled freshly baked chocolate chip cookies waiting for me, and I knew we had milk to go with them. I just had to clean off all the shugga first. Wendy must have still been nervous from the ride, because her usual cheerful smile was saddened by the tear falling from the corner of one eye.
Back inside, I devoured some cookies and chatted with Linda and Craig, telling them I had seen Brian and showing them my necklace; I forgot what to not tell them, but I also forgot about the policeman when I started talking about Brian’s motorcycle and the 1972 half dollar, and noone seemed upset about anything that happened. PawPaw came in from working in the pasture, smelling like chainsaw oil and smoke from burning piles of tree branches, and he promised we’d go fishing after dinner. Unfortunately, I was so tired from a day of work, second hand smoke, and sugar crashes that I missed fishing that day and fell asleep on PawPaw’s lap while we all watched Saturday evening black and white TV.
I awoke the next day to the sound of PawPaw’s voice.
“Hey, d’er, Lil’ Buddy. ‘Bout time you woke up.”
The routine that Sunday wasn’t much different than the previous Saturday, but I don’t recall what we had for breakfast. By the time the baby was up, Keith had shown up and he, PawPaw, and I were burning branches in the pasture.
Go to The Table of Contents