Santa Claus, Jesus, and James “Ed” White

“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.

Some time after killing Stretch Armstrong’s evil nemisis, when I had most of my hair back, I spent Christmas with my dad; though this memory is probably flawed and mixed with all the memories from my custody report in September 1976, which I can verify online, and an incident in 1979 that’s also verifyable online. In that time, my dad’s lawyer had appealed Judge Lottingger’s reversal of my custody, and the Whites had sued for custody, citing that they had come to view me as their own and, though employing Wendy and helping her, saying tetifying too late that she may not be the best one to raise me. I spent those years as a little kid bouncing around so many houses that I loose track, often at PawPaw’s, some times with Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo, sometimes with Kieth and his girlfriend, sometimes with Debbie and Cindi’s family, even when Debbie and Cindi weren’t there, once or twice with Brian the one armed drug dealer, and sometimes with my dad and his friends and family.

By that Christmas, the Christmas of 1976 to 1979, 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 never mentioned it again and neither had my dad, and PawPaw had bought me something better: 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 and, though he never said it, probably prevent me from stabbing someone again, regardless if they were good or evil. I would emulate PawPaw by carefully unfolding it and making sure it was sharp before using it, and I’d practice like Brian the one armed drug dealer had shown me, opening it by tightly grasping the back of the closed blade with my thump and two forefingers and flicking the knife with my wrist so that the wieght of the handle overcame friction and flicked open under the pinched blade, then tossing the knife up in the air and catching the handle with my one good hand; I held my left hand behind me to mimic Brian.

I was fishing with PawPaw in the pond beyond his gate, which still wasn’t attached to the fence, and munching on MawMaw’s chocoate chip cookies when PawPaw told me my dad was coming to pick me up for a while. I was happy about that, because I got to hunt and shoot and garden with him in that secret garden deep in the swamp, and it was always an adveture of swimming past aligators and giant mosquitos to get there a different way each time, never leaving a trail. And Big Daddy always gave gifts, like new fishing rods and knife sharpeners and hand warmers to keep in your pocket on cold nights. He had been spending a lot of time elk hunting near Flagstaff, in a cabin Walter bought him to keep him away from Loiusiana for a while, but everyone knew Big Daddy did what he wanted to and he wanted to spend time in Baton Rouge with his families during Christmas. He had us and his other families, which I never saw but had heard about them: Joe Partin was a famous football coach for the Zachary High School Broncos, not to far from the Glen Oaks Panthers, and even the Glen Oaks kids who hung out around our convenience store said Uncle Joe was famous, and that his son was a good football player because of him; of course I paid attention, because my cousin’s name is also Jason Partin, and most people pay attention when they hear someone saying their name. The only time I saw Joe and Jason and Big Daddy’s newest wife and kids was around holidays, when my dad took me to Grandma Foster’s and everyone was there except Mamma Jean and her side of the family. Whenever I saw my dad, I saw both families seperately, Big Daddy and his family at Grandma Foster’s, and Mamma Jean and her family at Aunt Mildred’s fishing camp on False River, and that meant lots of fishing and Mamma Jean’s fried catfish and oatmeal cookies. Of course I was happy to hear my dad was coming! It was always a good time and I could tell PawPaw about most of it when I returned a few days later.

Back inside, I packed a small backpack with a week or so worth of underwear. This time, I added a small thin jacket, more than enough for Loiusiana’s mild autums and winters, a time of year perfect for rides in a convertible or my dad’s roofless CJ-5 that we took to his new gardens deep in the woods. A thin jacket would be fine, especially with the Zippo hand warmer I kept in its pocket for early, cold mornings on Kieth or my dad’s deer stands. I added a small bag that Debbie had given me and I had filled with a few trinkets and toys, like a fake thumb tip and little space men with articulting arms that Debbie had given me long ago and maybe in a galaxy far away, as she’d say. Of course, I put in PawPaw’s Old Henry, just in case we ran into trouble. My .22 single shot rifle was at my dad’s, so I was sure I was ready for anything and I looked forward to the adventure.

I heard my dad’s voice boom: “Hey Justin – I mean Jason, goddamnit! – are you ready to go see Mamma Jean and Big Daddy?”

Of course I was. Like I said, I was ready for anything.

I said goodbye to PawPaw and got some shugga’ from MawMaw and climbed into the back of my dad’s new sports car. He had totaled his new truck, but still had the old jeep, which may not have been street legal. Big Daddy had bought him the new sports car, Kieth said, and he couldn’t stop admiring it.

“It’s like the cars at Big Daddy’s race track,” he exclaimed. “Fast. A 454 engine. And look at these seats! Real leather! This is a fine car!”

Big Daddy had built and owned the Baton Rouge International Speedway, once known as the Pelican International Speedway on behalf of our state bird, and though it was eventually torn down it was, for a while, a big deal in the small city of Baton Rouge, and Kieth loved being a part of it. He had just turned 16 or 17, so he hadn’t had a drivers license and wouldn’t have been bought cars by Big Daddy yet, and my dad was about 21 or 22 and had gone through a exhaustive list of cars that he’d wrecked or lost, confusing me as a kid and frustrating Kieth for not getting even a single car. And, to make maters worse, Big Daddy had already said he wouldn’t buy Keith a car any time soon, because he’d lost his last appeal and would be going to a federal penatentary in Texas soon. But, most of us had heard stories like that before, and no one had any doubt that Big Daddy would find a way, any way and no matter the obstacles, to avoid going to prison. He was just that kind of guy, and that’s one of the many resons everyone in Baton Rouge looked up to him.

“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?”

My dad said something I don’t recall.

“Come on!” Keith pleaded, “Let’s see what it 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 cans of beer that had been left outside in the heat and spoiled, sending bursts of overpressurized beer into the air with every hit until I emptied that box of ammo. Like my dad, who had a gun and a knife by age five, I was an underaged assassin, and no can of carbonated beverage could escape my sharp shooting wrath.

Eleven years later, I’d score a perfect score on the U.S. army’s marksmanship test, and within a year of that be certified expert on practically every weapon in the US arsenal and all small arms weapons shared by NATO. To this day I don’t know if my expertise came from the extensive and somewhat unorthodox military training I experienced, or from that Christmas Day and my dad’s case of spoiled beer cans. Like Wendy, I rarely discussed my family history, especially in the military, and I kept my promise tomy dad and never talked about what I did with him to anyone, except to a few close friends and in this book. In fact, to this day, I’ve never told anyone that there’s no Santa Claus, because I told my dad I wouldn’t, and I try to keep my word.

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