Some time after I saw Stevie Nicks and single handedly helped deliver phone books to all of Baton Rouge, I stayed with Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo for a while, and they took me to Disneyland to see my grandfather. Not Big Daddy, but Wendy’s dad, they said. He was a cartoonist there.
Disneyland is so far from Baton Rouge that we stopped overnight in the Redneck Rivera, which is what Uncle Bob called the strip of Florida beaches between Pensacola and Dustin. Our hotel had color television, just like the hospital, and I watched cartoons while Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo got a bucket of ice from the machine near our room and opened their first bottle of Scotch.
Popeye came on television and ate his spinach so he could beat up Brutus, and Uncle Bob smoked his Kent cigarette and watched with me and pointed out that Popeye protected Olive Oil and her baby, Sweet Pea, from Big Bad Brutus. I had never considered that, and I watched the next episode with newfound interest; though mostly because it made more sense to see Popeye eating green spinach rather than than the grey blob he swallowed on Paw Paw’s television.
A little while later, Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo were snoring, and I was able to watch color television all night long. They had something called “cable,” which meant I didn’t even have to change channels to watch cartoons. I was transfixed, and wondered how I had been happy up until that point in my life.
I don’t remember much about Disneyland, other than that the hotel had color television, and I saw Battle of the Planets for the first time and decided I liked cartoons about spaceships more than Popeye. And we met Wendy’s dad. He drank the same type of whiskey as Granny, Wendy’s mom, a Canadian brand that I don’t recall. And that he and Uncle Bob argued, the only time I ever saw Uncle Bob raise his voice. He called Wendy’s dad a bunch of names and said that he took care of Wendy and was now taking care of me, and wanted him to do something to help.
“For God’s sake! Look at him! He’s your grandson!” Uncle Bob shouted. My grandfather looked at me, and asked if I’d like a drawing. I said sure, especially because Auntie Lo had told me he was a famous artist, like I could be one day. He quickly sketched a cowboy in a cowboy hat and a business suit, and said it was Ronald Reagan. I wasn’t impressed. He made another quick sketch of a funny man with a round nose and X’s as eyes and stars circling his head, then he dipped his finger in his glass and dabbed whiskey near the funny man’s mouth and handed to me to sniff. It smelled like Granny. I liked that it made me think of her, and I wondered if I could add smelling things to my drawings.
The drawings seemed to aggravate Uncle Bob even more, and he said we had to go, so we did. Neither of them spoke on the way home. We didn’t even stop in the Redneck Riviera, and the drive seemed to take forever. At least eight or nine cigarettes, but I can’t be sure, because I fell asleep in the back seat. We weren’t stopped for speeding, either, so I didn’t wake up until we were back at their house in Baton Rouge. It was dark when we arrived, and Uncle Bob carried me inside to my bedroom without letting me fully wake up. He laid me down to bed and said, “See you in the morning, Champ,” and went into the kitchen. I heard the clanking of ice cubes being poured into their glasses, and I dozed off wondering where I could whiskey that smelled like the fish and deer I liked to draw.
I woke up to Auntie Lo’s voice in the kitchen, shouting at Wendy and Wendy shouting back. It was late at night, and they were both drunk.
“What are you doing coming home this late?” Auntie Lo shouted.
“I don’t have to answer to you!” Wendy shrieked.
“Yes you do! As longasyour’re living here,” Auntie Lo slurred. “We’re tired of taking care of your son while you stay out all night drinking.”
“You’re drunk too!” I heard Wendy shout
“It’s my house and I don’t have a kid to take care of, so I’ll do what I damn well please! You need to take care of your son!”
I didn’t hear what Wendy said, but I heard Auntie Lo’s voice get louder.
“Don’t walk away from me!” I heard the unmistakable sound of a face being slapped. Then I heard it again. Then I heard Auntie Lo bawling and asking why Wendy hit her, and Wendy saying she hit her first. I crept to my bedroom door and peered down the hall into the open dining room and kitchen. could hear Uncle Bob snoring in his bedroom, behind me, farther down the hall. Wendy was in the doorway to the carport, and Auntie Lo was leaning against the kitchen counter, next to her drink. Auntie Lo was much bigger than Wendy. She looked and sounded just like the tall and boisterous chef on television, Julia Child, the one that came on after Bob Ross, and Wendy looked like a little girl. Auntie Lo said she’d tell Robert that Wendy hit her first, and then she slapped Wendy so hard that Wendy flew backwards. Wendy shrieked and lunged at Auntie Lo and slapped her again and again, alternating with both hands, and Auntie Lo shoved her back against the refrigerator, and Wendy shrieked again and turned towards the bedrooms and rushed towards me.
I jumped back on bed just as Wendy stormed in and told me to get up and get dressed. She was crying so hard I barely understood her, but I was sure what she meant. It wasn’t the first time we left somewhere quickly. She threw open my chest of drawers and deftly packed my backpack with a few days worth of clothes. Auntie Lo showed up at the doorway, leaning against the door jam with her eyes mostly closed, and mumbled something I couldn’t understand. She slowly slide down to the floor, and sat there on her butt, with her legs sprawled across the doorway. Wendy grabbed my wrist and pulled me forward and stepped over her, and Auntie Lo came awake made a lunge for my leg but missed. Wendy yanked me over her without missing a stride, and we flew down the hallway and out the kitchen door and past carport to Debbie’s car in the driveway, and Wendy shoved me in the passenger seat and cried all the way to Debbie’s mom’s house.
Debbie’s mom was thrilled to see me, and hugged me and yelled that I was safe now. She always yelled in a high-pitched voice, even when she was being nice. It’s how she talked. Wendy said that she had a word I couldn’t pronounce back then, scizophrenia, and that it meant she couldn’t help how she spoke or acted, and that Debbie and her mom received disability checks. Debbie’s brother, Kieth, lived with them while he went to high school, but her sister sister, who had been Wendy’s friend in high school, had fled the house with her kid a few months before. Wendy and I could use their bedroom for a few days, her mom yelled.
A few days later, I was back at Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo’s, and Wendy was at Brian’s. As usual, Wendy told me not to tell the judge what had happened. Uncle Bob said he didn’t care what I did, as long as I didn’t regret it and told him the truth. I told him about what it was like at Debbie’s; it was fun, but loud. The television was so loud and on all day and night, and I couldn’t sleep. But Debbie was fun. I showed him the necklace I had made. It was pretty awesome, if I do say so myself. I’d never understand how Kieth managed to study in that house, much less earn a scholarship to engineering school; but he did, and he would leave Louisiana and moved to San Diego as soon as he could.
Uncle Bob sat in the chair by his desk. He had made Wendy’s old bedroom into an office, and had planned on working from home in it, but was gradually turning it back into a bedroom for me. Wendy stayed in the guest room when she stayed there, and so did our Canadian relatives when they visited Baton Rouge, and it had been Granny’s room when she and Wendy lived there after moving to America.
He pointed to the colorful ribbons on one of the walls, and said that Wendy had won all of those in swimming meets. She had been a good athlete in high school, he said. He pointed to the typewriter, and said she used to write, too. She had loved reading, and wanted to be an author. I asked what happened. He said he couldn’t say. But, the point was that I could do anything I wanted, if I stuck with it. All he asked was that if I did something, to do it as best I could. And to stick with it if I enjoy it. There’s always something in life to enjoy, he said.
“Come on, Champ. Let’s go outside and take some pictures.” He didn’t smile, nor did he frown. He was always cool and calm and collected, except for that time in Disneyland, and he always seemed to enjoy what he was doing. He had always enjoyed photography.
“Today is a special day,” he said as we unpacked his camera equipment from the closet. I carried the tripod, and he strapped the camera bag around his shoulder and carried a large tube protecting his telephoto lens. “The Space Shuttle is flying over Baton Rouge.” I didn’t know what that was, and he told me it was like the spaceships I saw on Battle of the Planets. It wasn’t flying by itself, he explained, but it would be on the back of a giant airplane that was flying low to the ground so that the people of Baton Rouge could see it. It was on its way from Houston to New Orleans, an hour downriver from Baton Rouge, and then to Cape Canaviral, near Disneyland.
We set up the camera and he let me practice taking photos of squirrels in the pecan trees in his back yard, and I used the telephoto lens to see my old elementary school. I didn’t see Miss Founteneaux. In case you haven’t heard, she’s fine. Uncle Bob used a lot of words that I didn’t understand, like f-stop and shutter speed and aspect ratio, but he said it was ok if I didn’t learn them now. I would in time, if I had fun and stuck with it.
We left the camera set up and sat on the patio furniture and ate the pecan pie Auntie Lo had made. She was just like Julia Child, before 2pm. After pie they poured a few drinks, and Uncle Bob looked at his watch and said it wouldn’t be long. It was a calm day under blue skies with just a few clouds, and we sat silently enjoying the sunshine until he looked at his watch and turned on the news radio and heard that the space shuttle was approaching. he said, uncharacteristically hurriedly and with a rare smile, “Let’s go!” and we got up and stood beside the camera. A few minutes later, I heard a dull roar and looked up and saw the biggest airplane I had ever seen approaching over the tree line.
I was confused at first, because the sound wasn’t coming from the plane. It was coming from somewhere to away, and I moved my head back and forth trying to understand why I was confused. And the plane looked more like it was floating in air than flying. Though it seemed to be still, it was getting bigger. As it got closer I ignored my confusion at the sound, because I saw a space ship strapped to its back, tiny by comparison, but a space ship none the less, just like Uncle Bob had said. It was like Battle of the Planets, but in my back yard!
The conjoined ships creeped across the sky, and Uncle Bob said I could take the picture. We only had one more image on the roll, so he said I should take my time and not rush myself. I waited, clutching the hand held trigger in my hand; the other end of the cable was attached to the camera, so that the camera wouldn’t shake when I snapped the photo. I waited and I waited and I waited, and when the ships were in sight I squeezed the trigger and snapped the photo. The shutter of his Minolta camera made the telltale click, and then the suffering came: I had to wait for Uncle Bob to develop the film. A week later, he had had it developed and blown up and framed, and it was hanging it in my bedroom next to Wendy’s multi colored ribbons. I didn’t keep the 23 photos of Westminister Elementary School and squirrels and pecan trees and Auntie Lo’s head, because I had taken a photo of a space ship and nothing else compared to that feeling. I felt I was the world’s best photographer, and no one told me otherwise.
Go to the Table of Contents