St. Francisville, Louisiana

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 Sheeran in “The Irishman,” originally published as “I Heard You Paint Houses.”

I signed paperwork to have my mother cremated and left the hospital with the director of the West Feliciana Humane Society where Wendy had volunteered for almost fifteen years, rescuing dogs and house training at home them to make them more adoptable. The elderly director, Susan, had heard Wendy was in the hospital and had coincidentally come by to visit just after I had released my hand from Wendy’s for the last time. Cindi, who had dropped Wendy off at the hospital and had called me to tell me Wendy was in a coma, hadn’t shown up yet and I was tired and ready to sleep, so I accepted a ride to Wendy’s house to get her car and use it while I was in Louisiana.

“She was a good person,” Susan said on the drive to Saint Francisville. “She donated a nice painting to the auction fund raiser every year, and she would come in to the shelter and play with the dogs that no one else would. She was a wonderful human being.”

I sobbed unsubtly and said yes, she was.

We drove in silence for a few minutes.

“She would bring McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches to the Angola prison workers assigned to the shelter,” Susan said. “Six of them. Only 99 cents each. She’d pass through the drive through on her way to the shelter, I guess. No one else saw her. She’d stop and say hello to those Negros, and they’d stop their work and smile and talk with her. They loved her. Some of them had heard of them same balona sandwhiches they got from Angola from their fathers. Probably their father’s before them was eating something on a piece of bread. They make 15 cents an hour. She’d chat with them and then come inside and play with the dogs. She even donated extra beds when we had too many big retrievers and recievers one year. No one knew. She prayed in private.”

She paused, and sniffed back a tear, and repeated in a slightly choked voice, “She was a good person.”

I stared out the window as we passed the exit for the airport and Granny and Grandma Foster’s houses and tears fell from my cheeks. I was sad and simultaneously angry: only a week before, almost 6 million people and I watched the weekly John Oliver show and it had coincidentally focused on Angola, sarcastically showing how cruel it was that a private prison in Saint Francisville forced inmates to work for local businesses for only about 50 cents an hour and, as an annual fundraiser, held a prison rodeo. John Oliver had shown footage of prisoner’s being tossed by bulls and exclaimed in his British accent, “Holy Shit! This still happens in Louisiana!” He went on to say how Angola was named after a Louisiana slave plantation named after Angola in Africa, how the predominately African American inmates at Angola were almost like spectacles for annual amusement in Saint Francisville.

“He missed a funny point,” I said out loud, mindlessly. I realized it and looked away from the airport and into the front windshield. Susan glanced at me inquisitively, so I continued.

“Saint Francisville is named after the patron saint of kindness to animals,” I said quietly and slowly without taking my eyes off the road.

In my teenage angst, during a brief period after Big Daddy was released from prison just as my dad went in, I had tried to become religious and attended a few Jimmy Swaggart sermons. He was caught driving with a hooker and a pile of sticky pornography magazines and I rebelled against him and all of the ostensibly religious Catholic influences on Louisiana, like how we’re the only state that still has parishes instead of counties. I had indigently scoffed at the Angola prison rodeo, trying to sound intellectual by quoting the origin of Saint Francisville and calling several adults in my life hypocrites. Wendy had agreed, and we had laughed at the hypocrites together in a rare bonding moment. Thirty five years later, I was still self righteous about being aware of facts like that, yet I had never brought a single prisoner a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich and Wendy had been doing it without telling anyone for more than a decade. I was the hypocrite, and I was angry at myself; I could have visited more often and learned who Wendy had become rather than remembering who she was.

Susan focused on the road again and said, “I know Wendy wasn’t religious, or at least didn’t talk about it. But I always thought of her when I thought of her when our pastor read from Matthew: “And the King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

She sniffed and looked like she was about to cry, then the smiled and said, “Wendy never came with us to church, but she was always welcome. You can join this Sunday, too, if you’d like.”

I thanked her and said I was hoping to finish settling the estate and fly home as soon as possible, that I missed my family in San Diego, and that I’d email her when I chose a time and place for Wendy’s ceremony.

We exited the dead-end I-110 at the State highway 61, near the chemical plants where Wendy and Granny had worked, and drove about 20 minutes hardly any cars on the road. My body managed a chuckle when I saw the old hand painted and faded sign nailed to a pine tree that I remembered chuckling at many times before, “Fresh coons and used batteries.” Before cell phones and GPS, I had used that sign as a reference to find homes when driving an ambulance because there were no other signs or mile markers on Highway 61. We passed a big banner stretched across the gas station at the intersection of a dirt road leading to a paper mill, which had lots of Teamster trucks pulling in and out and better signs than closer to Scotlandville. Nothing had changed, I thought, except that this will be the last time I drive out here. I slipped into another bout of sadness and clenched my teeth to stifle sobs.

Susan saw the banner and became chatty, probably lost in thoughts and memories like I was.

“When Wendy got that DUI and totaled her car,” she said as if I knew the event; I had not, and I listened closely as Susan focused on the road, “She wouldn’t let the ambulance take her without Liam. She called me and we were close by and took him to an emergency vet. Wendy spent more money on Liam’s bills than her own!” She smiled at that. I recalled Wendy mentioned something a few months prior about looking into medical insurance for dogs and telling me about how much Liam, her big goofy golden retriever, had loved to ride in the front seat but that she was looking into a seatbelt that would keep him in the back seat. I had stepping into my professor tone of voice, cheerfully saying that a dog seatbelt could be a good idea and trying to get her to focus on a future in which she invented dog safety devices. She had mumbled something I hadn’t understood, and we ended the call without me learning she had also gone to the emergency room and had almost died after making sure Liam was okay.

“She bought that fancy new car after that,” Susan continued, “and threw a blanket in back didn’t hesitate to put dirty dogs in the back seat.”

She smiled at that image and drove silently and my mind began replaying conversations over the past three years, which I had learned was how long ago Wendy had been diagnosed with cirrhosis. When the liver begins to fail at processing toxins that can pass the blood-brain barrier, a patient may seem drunk some when they have not been drinking. Wendy had been known to day drink, and I had assumed her drinking had just increased and I hadn’t paid as much attention as I could have. I may have been able to help her. I sat silently, but I wasn’t smiling: I was trying to will myself into the past so that I could listen better.

Susan pulled into Wendy’s driveway behind a new Lexus with leather seats and an automatic braking that was becoming common and the experimental “self driving” steering wheel and a back seat blanket covered in dog hair. I thanked her as I got out and reiterated that it would be at least five days until we had Wendy’s ashes, and that I’d email her when I knew when and where we’d have a ceremony. There would only be a few people invited, I said, because Wendy had been a private person and only a few knew she had cirrhosis. Susan agreed, and mentioned how horrified Wendy had been when her name and photograph had been published in the Baton Rouge Advocate’s daily DUI summary; she had even stopped coming to the shelter, which was full of elderly volunteers who still read the entire newspaper every day. No one’s mug shot looks good, especially in the local newspaper. Wendy could have used a friend then, and I tried unsuccessfully to travel back in time and resulted in a long bout of tears.

I knew I couldn’t sleep yet, because no matter how tired my body was my mind was ruminating too much. I walked around Wendy’s home and yard, a mansion by many people’s standards, bought with her early retirement settlement from Exxon and perched atop a rare Louisiana hill and overlooking a small fishing pond with a few ducks floating on it. I paced around the immaculately arranged and sparkling clean living room and looked at all the artwork and custom furniture. Wendy had used part of her retirement settlement to hire local artisans to repurpose old Cajun homestead cedar and make furniture that matched her mansion, which she had had a hand in designing and looked like a modern – and bigger – Acadian home. The artwork was from our great Aunt Edith, Granny’s aunt, who had inherited Canada’s largest private art collection from her husband and had sent Wendy the collectible works that reminded her of Wendy: lots of dogs hunting or sitting majestically, and some old French Canadian art with hints of Louisiana culture, probably because the the Cajuns had fled Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island before settling nearby. I was so tired that my body wouldn’t smile when I tried to focus on how many local retirees could have been excited to win Wendy’s donated paintings for a few hundred dollars donated the West Feliciana Parish Humane Society, never knowing the painting on their wall would sell for dozens of thousands of dollars at professional auctions. I walked around all the empty rooms and saw remnants of Wendy and our family and my mind would not calm down.

That afternoon, I finally found a spot outside with cell phone reception. I sat down under an azalea bush and typed Wendy’s obituary for the Baton Rouge Advocate on my phone and selected a photo from a visit long ago that was midway between her age now and when she was in high school, one of her smiling and with two of the dogs she had rescued and fostered, hoping people who knew her then and now would recognize her. It would be printed in the paper edition, which was still useful and used by people her age and by many people in the pleasant but relatively antiquated culture of rural Louisiana. I had hesitated writing it, wondering what to write and habitually respecting her privacy while also adhering to a trait I have, probably from Mamma Jean or another early influence to always tell the truth, and I believe Wendy would have been happy with the result.

Wendy Rothdram Partin, a resident of St. Francisville, LA, passed way on Friday, April 5th, 2019 at the age of 63. Wendy attended Glenoaks High School in Baton Rouge, LA, and retired from Exxon Mobil. She is survived by her son, Jason Ian Partin, of San Diego, CA. She was preceded in death by her mother, Joyce Rothdram, and her aunt and uncle, Lois and Robert Desico, all of Baton Rouge, LA. During her retirement, she became a master gardener and enjoyed helping people with their lawns. She enjoyed cooking, and took food to anyone she knew who was ill or grieving. Wendy loved animals, and worked with local shelters to foster dogs until they found permanent homes. She passed away unexpectedly from liver failure. In lieu of gifts or a service, please spend time sharing what you love with your neighbor, listen to what they love, and help each other.

Her obituary was printed in the Baton Rouge Advocate April 9th and 10th, 2019, and would remain available online; like most of our family history, I said to myself.

That evening, I was looking through Wendy’s phone contacts and text messages to see who I should call for the ceremony, or at least send the obituary link, when I saw a message from her bank verifying her withdrawl of $33,154 at 8:35am that morning, almost exactly at the time I was authorizing removing Wendy’s respirator tube. Without malice, I realized that one of her friends or associates must have taken her money. The timing was so precise that it must have been one of the few who knew she was in the hospital, but had not yet learned she had died. Though not an exact analogy, I thought of Judas and his silver and a recent coincidental news report that I had practically ignored saying that American elders loose $14 to $17 Billion dollars every year from fraudulent people who are there for them when family is not. Wendy was not elderly, yet she was suffering from poor decision making secondary to cirrhosis and I could have visited more often.

That was too much for me, and I collapsed on the floor of Wendy’s living room and bawled until my throat was swollen and my asthma choked me so tightly that I became dizzy from lack of oxygen and saw my fingertips turning blue and wondered, briefly, if I would suffocate from asthma due to lack of sleep and crying and allergies irritated by pollen from the pine tree forests around Saint Francisville, and I thought I’d deserve it if I did. I opened my mouth in a silent scream and with all of my might I screeched into heaven, “I’m sorry, Wendy! I’m so sorry…” and then I passed out and restlessly slept on the floor until the sun rose and ducks began landing on the pond again. It would be a long week, I thought.

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