Ronald Reagan

John Hinkley Junior shot Ronald Reagan with a .22 long rifle pistol on March 30th, 1981. My dad reminded me that a .22 is a poor choice for killing large animals, and that you shouldn’t shoot people. He said getting shot by a weak round did that war mongering asshole some good – my dad was always forthcoming with his opinion on presidents, and apparently all but Carter were war mongering assholes.

Shortly after, we drove to see Big Daddy in federal prison. He was beginning an eleven years sentence for a range of crimes that included embezzlement and falsifying data. Jimmy Hoffa had been declared dead for almost a year, our federal protection was no longer, and Big Daddy was susceptible to laws for the first time since he had languished in jail and called the FBI to offer his services sending Hoffa to prison. As the saying goes, what goes around comes around, and Big Daddy was finally going to jail and had no prospects for getting out.

He was in a low security penitentiary in Texas and had a private room with color television. My dad would drive there, and it was about three or four joints from Baton Rouge and coincidentally three or four joints from his land in Arkansas, like a giant triangle between Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana centered around the border town of Texarkana, where Mamma Jean had been born and we often stopped to visit my great-aunts who still lived there. I can’t recall anything remarkable about those visits to Texarkana and Big Daddy’s prison, except that people joked Big Daddy was in the Big House and we often failed to see him at the Big House because my dad never wrote down the visiting hours and we’d arrive too late. My dad would call the guards bureocratic assholes, but unlike they ticket takers at a Fleetwood Mac concert they weren’t intimidated and we’d leave and stay with Mamma Jean, who had bought a house in Houston.

Mamma Jean ran a hair salon from her garage and catered to elderly women from her church and the relatively wealthy Houston suburb around her home. Sometimes, I’d stay with her while my dad spent days at one of his sister’s houses and do some work for their family to earn a bit of money. He was a talented carpenter, and would spend a few days building a swimming pool gazebo for one aunt’s family and cabinets for another, and I’d spend the days with Momma Jean, who worked from home like she had ever since she left Big Daddy in the 1960’s.

“Sit down there, Jason,” she told me, pointing to a barber’s chair in her garage after a failed attempt to see Big Daddy. Over the years, her garage had evolved to look like a fancy hair salon with a single pivoting styling chair in front of a framed mirror, one recliner with a domed drying station next to a book rack with pop culture and gardening magazines a few bibles, and another recliner in front of the hair washing sinks. Mamma Jean had decorated her salon with old southern charm, lots of white laces and potted flowers and a cross with Jesus is Lord over the sinks, as if washing your hair was like being baptized. The window faced her back yard garden, away from the sun, and the laced drapes allowed natural light to fill the small, narrow salon.

I sat in the hair washing chair and she tilted me back and washed my hair, mumbling that it looked like my dad hadn’t washed it in weeks. She was right.

I moved to the pivoting chair and she towel dried my hair and pulled out her comb and scissors and stood between the mirror and me with her hands on her hips and contemplated what to do with my hair.

“Hmmph,” she exhaled, and quickly spun me around and parted the back of my hair and inspected my scar.

“Well, that thing’s still there,” she said to no one in particular. She moved her fingers around my scalp as if searching for lice eggs.

“Hmmph. I don’t remember that one.” He fingers lingered on a spot near the side of my head. I had a few small scars that I don’t recall how I got. Like a lot of kids, I climbed and rode things without a helmet, and I had been hit by BB’s that ricocheted from my BB gun when shooting around the rocks of Arkansas. Fortunately, I didn’t put out my eye, but I did have a few small, round scars on my scalp from my Red Rider BB gun.

“I remember giving you your first haircut as a baby, and I don’t remember this bump,” she said to no one. It was a dent, not a bump, but I knew what she meant and I never learned how I got it, and the only reason I think I wasn’t born with it is because Mamma Jean says she cut my hair as a baby and didn’t see it. She was known to have an immaculate memory and paid attention to detail with everything she did, so I have no reason to doubt her.

“Hmmph,” she exhaled, and then she spun me around and I almost laughed because it was fun, like a spinning chair ride at Baton Rouge’s Fun Fair Park or Houston’s Astroworld, places my aunts had taken me to over the years. Mamma Jean stopped the chair abruptly and my head wobbled and I giggled a bit. “Well, we’ll keep it long to hide that big scar, and do what we can with that cow lick.” She brushed my cow lick away from my eyes, held up her scissors, and began working.

Mamma Jean was gorgeous and eloquent, with a beehive hairdo meticulously styled and dyed a dark red that was almost maroon. She had very little makeup, just a hint of maroon blush and lipstick to accent her hair. She used the finest products, and I couldn’t smell her hairspray or her makeup. And though she didn’t use perfume, her clothes always had a hint of freshness and her skin smelled subtly like the fancy soaps she kept in the bathrooms. She always commented on my lack of heigene and unkept hair, and tried to do something about it as soon as I visited.

“What are you doing in school, Jason?” she asked while clipping away at my hair. I told her how I had gotten on television recently for artwork that Debbie had helped me with, on the Saturday morning Buckskin Bill show that brought on one school every week or so to showcase local school projects. I said I was famous, just like Big Daddy!

“Hmmph.” She spun me around and clipped more aggressively than usual for a minute. “Well, that’s good. I’m glad you’re liking school.” I hadn’t said that, because I wasn’t, but I had adopted some of Big Daddy and PawPaw’s cheerful ways of talking, and people assumed that when I sounded happy I was happy. What I had liked most about being on the Buckskin Bill show was working with Debbie on my project and getting out of school for a day to be filmed. This had happened recently, when Big Daddy was famously still getting paid by the Baton Rouge Teamsters even though he was in prison, and he was overtly still running the union, and the teachers and Buckskin Bill were interested in what I had to say. At first, they asked about my artwork, a poster drawing of a deer surrounded by a dozen arrows about to hit it from a dozen directions, and a poem under it in my big, block letters carefully traced between the guide lines that said:

Brown Deer, Brown Deer

What do you see?

I see shooting arrows

Coming at me!

I had explained how Big Daddy took my dad hunting for deer all over Louisiana and elk in Flagstaff and had taught me to gut a deer here – I made a motion across the deers belly – but to gut a man here – I made a motion near my rib cage – and the reporters and Buckskin Bill decided to let another kid do most of the talking in front of the camera for his weekly show. In the newspaper photo of that filming session, I’m standing silently behind that kid and holding my poster and he’s smiling and frustratingly adorable and expounding on the future of education for all kids being important for saving the world. I didn’t tell her those parts, but I recited my poem for her.

“That’s good, Jason. Does your mamma still get all those books for you?” She meant Granny, who had taken me to get a public library card and subscribed me to a book club similar to her Readers Digest club, and I received monthly Hardy Boys books about two brothers in high school who were detectives, like their father. I often had the most recent Hardy Boys and at least one library book when I visited Mamma Jean. I told her yes, for simplicity, and talked about the latest one I was reading.

“At least your momma gets you to read,” she said. “Now if we can just get her to keep you clean and take you to church.” She hmmph’ed again and rotated me around and clipped aggressively for a few moments, then spun me around again and chit chatted cheerfully about nothing in particular, probably like she did for the neighborhood ladies. She finished, rotated me a bit left and right in front of the mirror to see for myself, and held up a mirror for me to see the back of my head and how the scar was hidden yet my hair was much shorter and neater.

“Tell your mamma to tell your barber to use thinning shears. Your hair’s so thick that they probably keep it long to lie flat over your scar, but if she tells them to use thinning shears they can cut it shorter and it’ll still lie down.” I told her I would, and hopped down anxious for the pile of cookies that was waiting in the kitchen. We went to the kitchen where Aunt Janice and my cousin Tiffany were waiting.

Mamma Jean was a great cook, and her oatmeal raisin cookie recipe was a highlight of her church’s cookbook. She gave me a copy and showed me her recipe for cookies, potato salad, and fried catfish. Tiffany told me she made the oatmeal cookies at home, and Momma Jean rubbed her head and spoke in a loving voice and said how good they were. We were having fried catfish for lunch, and were allowed a few cookies while Janice helped Momma Jean bread the catfish filets.

“Your daddy always loved my catfish,” she said. “My first suiter didn’t, and that’s why I never asked him back!” She and Janice laughed at that old story. Momma Jean had been visiting her cousins in Woodville in 1949, hoping to finding a husband because she had just turned 18 and in the deep south back then was expected to be married and having children soon. She was as gorgeous as a movie star, and was coincidentally named Norma Jean, like the real name of America’s most famous model and actress, Marylin Monroe, and people said she looked something like a red headed Marylin Monroe. She met Big Daddy when he was 26 years old and running the Woodville Sawmill union and local trucking union that loaded and unloaded lumber, and he smiled and was charming and at three helpings of her catfish and she thought he had a responsible job and would make a good father and they were married six weeks later and began having children soon after that; she hadn’t known he was already married, nor had she known his criminal record. To Momma Jean, fried catfish had been a part of her life since she was a little girl, and she treated the process with almost religious reverence, and a big, handsome man who ate three servings and smiled and said he loved children blinded her young eyes. After thirty years later and all that had happened, she still smiled recalling that catfish dinner and Big Daddy’s charm.

Tiffany and I drew and I helped her with her school art project. She had to draw an alligator and a crocodile, but had never seen either one. I bragged about all the alligators my dad and I waded through to reach his… I paused, looked skyward, and pondered which the words I could use. I said “hunting area” instead of garden, and quickly went back to describing all of the alligators we fended off wading through the swamp to his hunting area. It was, in a way, true, because we used the same swamp to hike to grassy islands in the swamp where deer liked to feed and my dad had a deer stand, and we usually saw at least one alligator on any trip into the swamp. I tried to draw one as best I could, but without Craig or Debbie helping my alligator looked remarkably like the deer on my Buckskin Bill poster.

Tiffany had some books about animals Momma Jean had bought her, and we found photographs of alligators and crocodiles and drew them as best we could, and Tiffany, who was a year older than I was, wrote down their scientific names and highlighted differences in their appearance on her drawing, like the rounded nose on a crocodile and the flat nose on an alligator. We finished, she thanked me for my help and cleared the table and went to wash her hands as Janice and Momma Jean set the table.

“See, Jason,” Momma Jean said. “Tiffany knows to wash her hands. You need to learn that, too.” My dad always said Momma Jean “nagged” and “preached,” and though I wasn’t sure what those things meant, I knew the words weren’t polite and that that I felt uncomfortable around her, as if I was always doing something wrong in her eyes and being corrected. I was nervous to do anything, and when she told me I needed to learn to wash my hands I sighed and followed Tiffany to the bathroom and it’s fancy soaps shaped like magnolia flowers. We returned together and sat at our plates and I started to reach for mine but Momma Jean stopped me and we all held hands and she said grace. Janice and Tiffany said “amen” with her, and I mumbled it after but too late and Momma Jean eyed me with unsubtle judgement and said we could eat now.

To Momma Jean’s horror, I poured ketchup all over my catfish. It was just like my dad did with all his food, and like everyone seemed to do with Grandma Foster’s notoriously bland and usually burnt smothered chicken, but Momma Jean admonished me for it and I lowered my eyes and put my head down and began wolfing down my food.

“Jason, uncouth people put their face next to their plate. Polite people use their fork and brink one bite to their mouths at a time.”

I tried using my fork like that. It wasn’t fun, and it forced me to be looking at everyone and opening myself up to more criticism. But Janice and Momma Jean stopped paying attention to me and chatted about daily life in Houston, and Tiffany and I ate and she didn’t say anything negative about me and we laughed and talked about things 9 and 10 year old kids talk about together.

My dad came home covered in sawdust and smelling like sweat and freshly cut wood and loaded a plate with potato salad and catfish and covered the catfish with ketchup. He sat down without washing his hands and picked up a piece of catfish with his fingers and lowered his head to bit it when Momma Jean stopped him with a sharp tone in her voice and said he should say grace. He said something harsh back at her and wolfed down his catfish and Momma Jean began lecturing him about Jesus. Janice nodded in agreement and offered a few words of affirmation or reminded my dad of incidents in the past that could have only happened because of Jesus. Momma Jean had always said that the money Bobby Kennedy paid her to remain silent could have been sent from heaven, because she had no options to care for her children until he paid her the equivalent of Big Daddy’s alimony and child support and bought her house so that she could start a hair salon in it while caring for her children; and the Lord works in mysterious ways. She never lied because that would be a sin, but she never spoke to reporters or FBI agents and would paraphrase Jesus in the New Testiment, that when in doubt simply answer “yeah” nor “neah” and don’t try to get fancy with your words.

My dad erupted at that example, and said that Jesus was a bunch of bullshit and that she could shove her bible up her ass. Everyone was shocked, and Janice and my dad began arguing loudly while he continued to wolf down ketchup covered catfish, and he got so angry that he pointed both middle fingers to the sky and shouted “Fuck you, Old Man! Fuck you! Goddamnit, fuck you!” and looked down and said, “See? Nothing!” That pushed Momma Jean over the edge, and though I never heard her shout, when she was very angry her sharp tone of voice was unmistakable. She told my dad to leave.

We began to pack and leave in a hurry, but Tiffany rushed to my side and hugged me and told me everything would be ok and thanked me for helping her with her school project and handed me Momma Jean’s cookbook that I had almost left behind and kissed me on the cheek and said goodbye. Janice and Momma Jean were still arguing with my dad and didn’t say goodbye before he grabbed me by my upper arm and rushed us to his jeep and we drove for three or four joints until we were back in Arkansas. We didn’t stop in Texarkana that time. Every time I saw him, he seemed more and more anxious to be at his cabin in the Ozarks, where his nearest neighbor was more than five miles away and up a winding dirt road that was hard to access without a four wheel drive truck.

He had been paid in cash for building a gazebo for Aunt Cynthia’s husband, and we stopped in Clinton to buy groceries. We laughed when he selected the biggest bottle of ketchup they had, and laughed some more on the 30 mile drive through the hills along State Route #1 to the dirt road turnoff to his cabin, and even more on the long bumby ride in his 4×4 jeep down to the cabin. And we laughed again when we caught some smallmouth bass in Little Archie Creek in front of his cabin and grilled them in the fire pit and drowned them in ketchup and salt and devoured them. No one made us wash our hands or say grace or use a fork, and we feasted chocolate covered caramel Turtles and a can of peach halves each for desert and peed and pooped in the outdoor composting pile outside the back door. And though we didn’t have swimming pool like Aunt Cynthia, we had a perfectly sized swimming hole near us in the Little Archie Creek, and after peeing and pooping we ran outside and stripped naked and jumped in a deep section and washed and splashed and caught crawfish that we threw at each other’s private parts joking to watch out for the pinchers. It was much more fun than Momma Jean’s house.

Late that night my dad smoked a joint and we played chess by the light of two kerosene lanterns, and he reminded me of the last time he and Momma Jean had fought about Jesus the previous Christmas. I saw that he was right, that he was the only person always honest with me. Momma Jean and Janice had given us Christmas presents, and though Janice had crafted some herself and those were labeled from her, Momma Jean had given me a gift labeled from Santa Claus and my dad had argued that Santa Claus wasn’t real. She had said that it was a game for me to have fun, and that Christmas was really to remember the birth of Jesus Christ. My dad had bellowed at that similar to how he bellowed at the catfish dinner, and we left before Christmas day and he told me to watch, that Christmas morning there wouldn’t be any gifts even though we had a chimney for anyone to get inside our cabin, whether that was Santa Claus or Jesus Christ. He had cursed the sky then, too, invoking the commandment Momma Jean revoked him for, using the Lord’s name in vain, and told me that because nothing happened it must be a lie, just like Santa Claus. I woke up and saw he was right and he said that neither Santa nor Jesus came to save us, and ever since then I was uncomfortable around Momma Jean. That trip solidified my feeling, and I grew more attached to our cabin and the remote land of Arkansas.

That night, by lantern light, my dad stopped ranting about anything and began teaching me to play chess, and because I had had a fun day and was full on fish and ketchup and was learning to play a game, I was happy being with my dad regardless of whether or not Jesus brought me Christmas presents.

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