Let’s take a look at this “all-American boy” and his record, which was carefully kept from the jury by Judge Wilson and the government.
In December, 1943, he was arrested in the state of Washington for breaking and entering. Pleading guildy, he was senteneded to fifteen years in the state penitentiary, from which he escaped twice.
Freed, he joined the Marine Corps and was dishonorably discharged. He had been accused of raping a young black girl.
Becoming head of the Teamster local in Baton Rouge, he was charged by certain members with embezzling $1600 in union funds and he had been indicted on thirteen counts of falsifying records and thirteen counts of embezzlement.
While out on fifty thougsand dollars’ bond, he had been indicted in Alamama in Septermber of 1962 on charges of first-degree manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident.
One day beofe the Alambama incictment, he surrendered on September 25th, 1962, to Louisiana authorities on a kidnaping charge, the “minor domestic problem” to which Life magazine had referred. He had assisted a friend in snatching the friend’s two smallc hildren from teh friend’s wife, who had leagal custody of the children.”Jimmy Hoffa
I arrived in San Diego and greeted Cristi and Charity, her eight year old daughter, who ran up and hugged me and called me Uncle J. I gave her the wooden percussion gadget and made the stick vanish with a simple flick vanish that she had seen before, then pulled it from my pocket and showed her how to hold the hollow part in her cupped hand to make a deeper sound and tap it in different spots with the stick to make different notes, then excused myself to go to my yoga and exercise room. They were used to my travels and knew I’d like some time alone. I did about an hour of yoga to the sound of Charity practicing music then came out and chatted with her until she went to bed, and then Cristi and I talked briefly about Wendy and I told her about a few Cuba highlights, especially the boy who was a bit older than Charity but just as curious. But, no matter how cheerful I sounded, she knew me well enough to know I was more worried than I had ever been about Wendy.
She hadn’t spoken to Wendy, and didn’t share my worry, perhaps because she hadn’t listened to Wendy’s voice mail. Even if I played it for her, the pauses were so subtle and only I knew Wendy that well, so I didn’t break the moment by pulling out my phone. Instead, I mentioned my irrational fear about suicide, and Cristi understood: mental illness ran in my dad’s side of the family and many of my cousins had committed suicide, and though Wendy wasn’t related to them I still worried about her mental health and probably just projected my history. She may not have been worried for Wendy, but she empathized that I was worried and that was enough for me.
The next day a few friends came over and I made a Hemmingway Dacquiris and a ceviche and salsa similar to the bar in Havana. I wasn’t feeling social, and fortunately they were good friends who new my family history and noticed the worry behind my jokes and smiles. We chatted about Wendy for a bit. They had all known my struggles with her growing alcoholism, just like they knew how many of my dad’s side of the family had committed suicide. I told them of the odd feeling I felt from the coincidence, almost irony, of only having WiFi reception in San Francisco de Asis and Wendy not having reception in Saint Francisville. It sounded crazy or synchronistic, depending on your experiences or beliefs, I said. Regardless, I continued, I felt something important was happening that I couldn’t explain with logic and I couldn’t shake the feeling that Wendy would kill herself. I was able to sort my random and chaotic nonlinear thoughts by speaking freely and unfiltered among friends, and I made a decision on what to say to Wendy when I would eventually speak with her, and I knew what I’d do to prepare. We finished the dacqaris and chatted about the mango salsa I had made to go with the ceviche Cristi had made, and we talked about Hemingway and The Old Man and The Sea and it was a good evening. But, I realized that the thought about Wendy wouldn’t leave my mind on its own. It was like an itch that needed to be scratched, and I went to sleep pondering how to scrath it.
The next day I dug out Uncle Bob’s old Rolex and walked uphill from our condo on Balboa Park to a tiny watch shop, a barely noticeable slot in long line of businesses in Hillcrest called, humorously, Just in Time. Moe, the proprietor and watch smith. Moe had replaced the strap on my old Seiko solar dive watch before Cuba, and I had bought a few batteries from him over the years for my daily wear watch. Moe had once refurbished a vintage Swiss wind-up watch of Uncle Bob’s that I wanted to wear with my suit for a wedding, and I trusted his work. He told me it would have cost $600 to disassemble, clean, lubricate, and replace the cracked face on Uncle Bob’s 1970’s Rolex Oyster Perpetual; Moe was one of only five watch smiths in Southern California who had trained with Rolex in Switzerland and had their approval to repair the Oyster Perpetual.
He said it would take a week, and in that time I tried reaching Wendy several times. Coincidentally, she returned my call as soon as I walked home from piking up Uncle Bob’s watch. I told her about joking with cab drivers in Cuba, a slight lie becasue they were private car drivers, but she knew what a cab was and that was easier, and how I still used Uncle Bob’s jokes. He was a French Canadian who had immigrated to Louisiana in the 50’s and had spoke Latin in his Catholic church back on Prince Edward Island, coincidentally where the Cajuns had originated, and had managed Montreal’s Bulk Stevadoring in New Orleans, traveling the world negotiating contracts wtih international shipping companies to load and unload their cargo and learning jokes in about a dozen languages. We laughed at a few old jokes he had told us both as kids, and I used the connection with Uncle Bob to say what I had wanted to say all along.
“I love you, Wendy,” I said. It was true, but I said it habitually and without pausing for the feeling first because I was anxious to continue speaking, “And I had Uncle Bob’s Rolex fixed because I was thinking of you and wanted to talk about when he died. Please don’t hang up this time – it’s important.”
She acquiesced. She had loved Uncle Bob like a father. Her mother had fled an abusive husband and left Toronoto to move in with her sister, Auntie Lo, and Uncle Bob, and they took in Granny and a five year old Wendy while Granny looked for work. Ten years later, he took Wendy and me in intermitantly as my custody battle against the Partins raged, and in and I took a deep breath and ranted about living without regrets.
Uncle Bob was far from a perfect person, but until his dying day he said he lived without regrets, and that’s more than most people could say. He was a French Canadian who had married our Auntie Lo and moved to an upper middle class suburb with an exclusive counry club in Baton Rouge so that he could manage the American operations of Montreal’s Bulk Stevedoring, loading and unloading cargo from major ports like New Orleans, New York, and Los Angeles. They couldn’t have children, and embraced their lifestyle with frequent trips abroad for Uncle Bob’s work and weekly liesurely days at Sherwood Forest country club, where they drank expensive cocktails all day and smoked the best cigarettes and used words like nigger, spic, jew, redneck, and coonass; at least, he did until I got in trouble for saying “nigger” at school. He had grown up in an all white region of Candada, Prince Edward Island in Nova Scotia, where the Cajuns had come from, and though he never adapted to socio economic differences that plagued the south, and, to him, those words implied characteristics, actions rather than appearances, and by his definition anyone could be a nigger, spic, jew, redneck, or coonass if they repeatedly did the foolish things that made the names undesirable. By his definition, he was flawed but not racist, and that if I used a word I should know what it menat to me and to the people listening, which weren’t always the same thing.
Uncle Bob spent a lot of time in New Orleans at an appartment he kept near Bulk Stevadoring’s headquarters, speaking French at the fancier restaurants and with high-end jewlers more tied to Paris than Loiusiana, and around the time I was born he splurged and bought the Rolex that I’d eventually inherited. It was more than he thought he’d ever spend on a watch, but because he and Auntie Lo had no children and he always joked that “you can’t take it with you,” he bought the best quality, least ostentatios watch he could find while walking around the streets of New Orleans. His and Auntie Lo’s home was filled with decor from the streets of New Orleans, usually bought from local artists or reputable dealers, and his stereo system was the best he could afford in the 60’s, perfect for the vinyl albums he brought back from local New Orleans jazz musicians that he and Auntie Lo played at cocktail parties with their like minded friends from Sherwood Forest country club. Uncle Bob was a flawed man, but he had died without regrets. And, though he was decadent and enjoyed his lifestyle, when Wendy needed someone he was there, just like he had been for me.
You may have heard of Wendy’s grandfather, Harold Hicks, and I reminded her about him and her surviving Canadian family that would welcome her visits. Grandpa Hicks had been famous as a professional hockey player for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins, and had left the sport to manage the English half of Canada’s railway system. His obituary spoke highly of him and the influence he had had on his country, and mentioned his three daughters, Granny, Auntie Lo, and our Aunt Mary, and Wendy’s thier spinster aunt, our Aunt Edith, who had worked as the personal secretary of Canada’s wealthiest men and art collectors, ??? Lang, until marrying him at age 80 and donating most of his art to Canadian museums and using her newfound wealth to travel the world and send us post cards, and Wendy had always dreamed of traveling like Aunt Edit. The Hicks and even a few Langs had always offered to host Wendy and get to know her better, so there was no reason Wendy couldn’t travel and have people she already knew there. And money was not an obstacle, because Wendy was wealthy, having inheritied many pieces of art from Aunt Edith and the collected individual retirement accounds of Uncle Bob, Granny, and Auntie Lo, all of whom had died in their early 60’s from alcohol and cigarette related diseases and hadn’t spent any of ther retirement savings. Despite the potential for her future and the good fortunes of her inheritances, she lived in her past mistakes, and though we bantered a lot her biggest regrets remained losing her virginity to Ed Partin, abandoning me, and not being able to deter me from going to war. Her depression increased, and almost ten years before she accepted an early retirement from Exxon, a deal they offered because of her long service, discretely ignoring her missing work and skipping anger management classe. In lieu of Exxon’s typical retirement watch ceremony, she left early with 80% of her retirement pension in one settlement and promised herself she’d finally travel out of Louisiana and see other countries, yet with the extra free time and her unsettled mind she succumbed to the alcoholism that ran in her side of my family, slow suicide compared to the quick ways my dad’s side of the family choose. It’s perhaps the analogy that prompted my worry in Cuba, and though I didn’t feel she’d take her own life my subconscious probably correlated the two situations and created a sense of urgency in my words and actions.
“I love you so much that I can’t stand to see you drink yourself to death,” I finally said.
She said she wanted to see me in San Diego, but I had heard that before and she had always canceled before taking the long flight and forgoing her typical lunchtime glasses of wine. I dismissed the probability and sighed subtly. I don’t know if she noticed.
“Wendy, I love you so much that I can’t say yes,” I said with a slow cadence, ensuring she heard every word. “I can only focus on helping you to stop drinking. Go travel. See the world, like Aunt Edith. She married at 80, and you’re still young and could meet someone who’s in the same place in life.”
I used the gender neutral “someone” because I had long suspected that Wendy leaned a bit towards other women, but may not have realized it in the traditional and ostensibly religious culture of Southern Louisiana. After she left my dad, she had one relationship with the engineer from Exxon for almost 17 years, followed by many short term dating relationships and a female “friend” roommate for a year. She was fiercely private and hadn’t shared details; she had always felt ashamed by her choices, still judged like she felt she had been as a 16 year old girl, unaware that most people were not paying much attention to you other than to guage your reaction about them.
“Have fun!” I said, like a robot programed to say upbeat things. “You deserve it.” That part was true. She had had a rough life. I reminded her of a magnet Auntie Lo kept on her refrigerator after Uncle Bob died, one of those motivational decors with a cute litle picture of a home with a rainbow that said, “The past can not be changed, but the future is whatever you want it to be.” I probably sounded like a pompus bore repeating cliches and offering bromides rather than listening and saying what could have helped. I finished my layman’s sermon smugly, quoting an old Spanish toast – in English – that I had once told Wendy with sincerity but now repeated like a machine, “To love, wealth, and health; and the time to enjoy them all.”
She sighed the same sigh as in her voice mail and said Uncle Bob always said to live without regrets.
She was mistaken: he never once suggested how other people should live, he only said he tried to live a life without regrets. But I didn’t correct her, thankfully. I heard regret in her voice and mistakenly assumed that she was overanalyzing how to make the perfect decision, and I reiterated my conversations with Uncle Bob in his final months and told her than she could go anywhere and do anything, and it wasn’t a one time vacation to over analyze and attempt to make perfect, because she had her entire life ahead of her. I smugly quoted some proverb attributed as Chinese, that the enemy of good is desire for perfect, and encouraged her to visit Europe even if she didn’t know what she’d do there. It was springtime, I said, and a perfect time to see cities like Paris or Dublin especially before the main tourist season, when flowers were just beginning to bloom and locals would be walking in the parks and gardens and smelling all the flowers, like she liked to do. I even reminded her of an old joke between us that few people would understand, that her favorite album from 1971 had been Led Zeppelin IV and their classic song, “Going to California,” and it’s line, “There’s a woman out there with love in her eyes and a flower in her hair,” and repeated how the spring bulbs of Paris were beautiful and she could even practice her French or take a language course to meet people. She sobbed a bit, and I falsely imagined that she was sensing I was right and was a bit drunk and feeling depressed. She had been day drinking more and more the past few years, and I was used to her slurring words earlier and earlier in the day, sounding more and more like Auntie Lo every year. I definitely wouldn’t tell her that, and though I made sure I told her I loved her again, my tone was probably a combination of exasperation and frustration at having had the similar conversations so many times.
Three days later I received a voice mail from Cindi, telling me Wendy had gone into a coma from liver failure and was not expected to live to the end of the a week. I bought the next plane ticket to Baton Rouge and had two days to wait and ponder our final conversation. I was wearing Uncle Bob’s watch for the first time in twenty years, and as I watched the second hand move smoothly around the face, smooth from freshly lubricted Swiss coil springs and unlike the jerky movements from quartz watches, and I regretted my tone and emotions when speaking with Wendy for what I felt was the final time. I saw the irony every time I looked at Uncle Bob’s wacth, waiting for my airplane date and wishing I could go back in time and change the final words I had spoken to my mother. It wasn’t just the words. I had said I love you many times and had repeated words of affirmation, but I had told her I didn’t want to see her and I knew she’d ruminate on those words and pick up on my frustrated tone more than anything. There was nothing I could do to change that. I may have wanted to find ways to honor her, but I had obviously failed. I dind’t know what Uncle Bob would say about that, because even if I could learn and chose different words I was sure Wendy woudln’t live to hear those words, and I knew I’d remember that the rest of my life.
I don’t recall sleeping the two days I waited for my airplane, and I never stopped pacing long enough for Uncle Bob’s perpetual motion watch to wind down. Two long days later, I wore his watch as I boarded an airplane destined for Baton Rouge for what I felt was the final time.
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