Judge Robert “Bob” Downing of the 19th Judicial District Court, East Baton Rouge Parish, State of Louisiana, peered down his nose at my paperwork then looked up at Wendy and me across the top of his reading glasses. He paused, then looked back down his nose and reread my request. A few seconds later he put down the paperwork, took off his glasses and rested his arms on his large wooden desk and leaned forward. He sat silently for a moment or two, calm and not judging either of us .
“Miss Partin,” he began, “this is the first time I’ve been asked to emancipate a youth at their request.” Wendy looked up with a sad look on her face and quickly narrowed her eyes and looked back down at her lap where her hands held each other tightly.
Judge Bob leaned back in his chair so that he could see us at the same, took a deep breath, and said, “Usually, a family requests a youth’s emancipation in order to release themselves from legal responsibility. In those cases, the youth has a history of delinquency. But, in this case, Jason has requested emancipation so that he may obtain a driver’s license in order to continue working and going to school, where he has a C grade average and is active in several sports and activities, and he wishes to graduate high school and join the army for the college tuition program. You have refused to sign his driver’s license permit, and you have refused to sign his army contract, and you request that he leaves your home as soon as he graduates, which would be six months before he is 18 and legally able to sign his own contracts, therefore he believes his best choice is to be emancipated now.”
He paused, and we all sat in silence for a few moments. Wendy looked up again, then looked back down and focused on her hands, subtly scratching her left fingernails with her right. She had done the same thing when wet with my principals, when I used to get in trouble at school. But that was a long time ago. Two years. Maybe less. But a long time for a 16 year old.
“Miss Partin, once you sign this, Jason will cease to be your legal responsibility. This can not be revoked. I need to ask you again, are you sure that you have no objections?”
Wendy was frowning, and her jaw was tight, and she stared down at her hands and wrung them back and forth and said she didn’t object. She looked up at me, her lip trembled, and she added, “He’s just like his dad,” as if that explained everything, or somehow vindicated her. She had always said that; even at our one attempt at family counseling, she just kept repeating that I was just like my dad. I only went to counseling that one time, but Wendy returned once a week for an entire semester of school. It hadn’t helped.
“Jason,” he said, looking at me. “Do you have anything to add?”
I looked at him and said that I didn’t. Nothing had changed since I first filed for emancipation a month before. We still hadn’t heard from my dad, Granny was too sick from chemotherapy and radiation, and Grandma Foster was too old. Uncle Bob was dead, and Auntie Lo was a drunkard.
He took off his glasses and leaned forward and rested his weight on his forearms. “Jason, I admire your initiative. Not many youths come from a family with as much trouble with the law as yours, and even fewer change their situation for the better.”
Judge Bob had known my dad and grandfather.
He looked back at Wendy and said, “We haven’t heard from Mr. Partin, so all we need is your signature here…” he slid the single piece of paper to her. She signed it and pushed it back towards him without looking at either of us.
“And Jason, we need your signature here…” He slid the paper to me and I pulled it to my side of the desk and signed it. I looked him in the eye, smiling, and he smiled back. I wasn’t necessarily happy – I had inherited my grandfather’s smirk – but I was glad this was over. A month was a long time to wait to become an adult.
“Thank you,” he said. He put on his glasses, looked at our signatures, and signed across the bottom. He picked up a heavy stamp and pressed it across his signature, creating a raised seal from the State of Louisiana. He said to keep that one with me, but advised me to have a certified copy left in the courthouse records, and to take a copy to the recruiter. I said I would, and he stood up and signaled that the court session had ended.
He thanked Wendy for her time, stuck out his hand, and said, “Mr. Partin, I wish you luck.” I shook his hand and thanked him. Wendy didn’t say anything. We left the courthouse together, and parted ways without saying anything more.
Andrea was waiting for me in her dad’s van. I hopped inside and smiled and told her I was “Mr. Partin” now. She laughed, and asked if I felt different. Surprisingly, I did. But, I didn’t know how to explain it, so I simply said I felt free. I felt ready for anything.
She drove us straight to the army recruiter’s office, where the recruiter had my contract ready. He asked for a copy of my emancipation paperwork, and asked me to verify that the contract had everything I had requested. It did.
I was joining the army’s delayed entry program. In a year, I’d leave Louisiana for infantry basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia. As an incentive to sign army contracts in advance, the army would apply the year delayed entry towards my pay and rank. I’d begin as an E2 instead of an E1. I’d still a private, Private Partin, hilariously close to sounding like ‘private parts,’ but I’d be beginning my service with an E2 stripe on my collar and an extra $75 per month in my paycheck. I was guaranteed an assignment with the 82nd Airborne Division, assuming I passed Airborne school, and I’d receive an additional $110 per month of “hazardous duty pay” for being a paratrooper.
The army would withhold $100 from each paycheck for a year towards my college fund, and after 3 years and 17 weeks of service I’d have access to $36,000 for college, paid in monthly installments as long as I was enrolled in a university or trade school. I had done the math: $100/month X 12 months = $1,200, so I’d be earning $34,800 for college, if I went. Granny helped me calculate my rate of return, whatever that was, just like she had for her retirement account. She had seemed impressed; apparently, a 3,000% rate of return was good.
I had also requested $100/month to be withheld and automatically invested in Series EE savings bonds, which could be cashed in tax-free if used for school expenses. Granny was less impressed by that rate of return.
Before I signed the contract, I asked the recruiter I needed to demonstrate the 10 pushups required for delayed entry, and he said that wouldn’t be necessary. I felt disappointed. I had been practicing doing pushups one handed, like Sylvester Stalone in the Rocky movies, and I wanted to show off. I was up to 15 pushups with my right arm, and 12 with my left, but no one had seen me do any yet.
I asked him if he was sure, because I had read in the pamphlet he had given me, and it said that someone joining the delayed entry program needed to demonstrate 10 pushups. He looked at me for a moment, smiled subtly, and said he was sure. Then he chuckled, and said that I had been his easiest recruitment yet, that he had to talk most kids into joining the infantry to meet his quota, whatever that was. He said there was nothing else he needed, reminded me that my contract was dependent on me graduating high school, shook my hand, and wished me luck.
I joined Andrea outside. She was in the van, and when she saw me she smiled and saluted. I hopped in, and said that she had never imagined me joining the army. I said I was surprised, too. I hadn’t considered it until a month before, just after Uncle Bob died. I had spent a month taking care of him in the hospital at night, and then another month at his home under the guidance of Hospice, cleaning his bed soars and cleaning up after Auntie Lo. I saw a lot of things differently now, and joining the army was the first step towards escaping Louisiana and my family.
Andrea told me that she bought the new Metallica tape, and my eyes lit up excitedly as she pushed it into the tape deck, a monstrosity of exposed wires and tape to make it fit where the van had once had an eight-track player. Her dad had installed it for her in his old work van as a high school graduation present two months ago.
We pulled out of the recruitment office parking lot, blaring the “And Justice for All” album. The first song was “Blackened,” and we banged our heads and repeated the only word we could make out: “Blackened!” We had so much fun that she wanted to keep driving, and she suggested we go see Southwestern University campus in Hammond, 30 minutes away. We drove down the highway, rockin’ out to Metallica.
When “One” began playing, I sobered, and images of a man thrashing in a hospital bed flashed into my mind. The M-TV video for One was overlaid on an old black and white war anti-movie, Johnie Got his Gun, and showed a severely disabled vet unable to see or speak, tapping his head against his hospital pillow until someone recognized that he was using Morse Code to spell “Kill me” again and again. It was one of their slowest songs, and the lyrics were written as if we were hearing Johny’s thoughts. It began:
I can’t remember anything
Can’t tell if this is true or dream
Deep down inside I feel the scream
This terrible silence stops me
Andrea sang while driving, smiling while clenching her fist in mock angst and gesturing melodramatically while staring at the road. I was lost in thought, watching her sing, then I heard the lines:
Fed through the tube that sticks in me
Just like a wartime novelty
Tied to machines that make me be
Cut this life off from me
Hold my breath as I wish for death
Cut this life off from me
and my mind jumped back to Uncle Bob in the hospital.
I stopped the tape player and stared ahead silently, the way I always did when trying to articulate a thought or feeling for the first time. Andrea must have looked over at me and seen me staring, because she didn’t say anything while I tried to find words that made sense.
She had visited me in the hospital, and had seen Uncle Bob hooked to all the machines, and after he died I had told her about how he suffered so badly, and how he kept pushing the button that dripped morphine into a needle in his arm. Over time, I saw Uncle Bob transition from my best friend to an frail man, subdued and mumbling incoherently. Though he wasn’t like Johnny, he had lost the use of everything below the cancer in his spine, and had become nothing like the Uncle Bob I had known all my life, a man who lived large and said he’d die without regrets. And I had told Andrea that after Uncle Bob died, Granny had decided not to continue cancer treatments if she needed after her current round of chemo and radiation. She said she’d rather live life than become dependent on others.
I asked Andrea what she would do if she were like Johnny.
She said that she’d rather die than be like that. She didn’t know if she could kill someone who asked, though. I said that Uncle Bob had always thought he’d rather die than suffer, but for the final few weeks of his life he told me that had changed. He wanted to live, even if it meant suffering. He wasn’t afraid to die, but he loved life so much that he wanted to stay, no matter the cost. Granny said that she loved life so much that she wanted to end on a high note. I had held Uncle Bob’s hand as he fought for his last breath, just before sunrise. A week later, after I gave Uncle Bob’s eulogy, I had filed for emancipation.
I told Andrea that Uncle Bob had said opinions and beliefs change when you’re facing death rather than just talking about it. He had always said that he wanted to live without regrets, and that he’d regret not fighting for life until he couldn’t fight any more. It wasn’t about clinging to any thing, because he had never cared for material things, though he joked that he did. His only dying wish was to have his hearse drive through the neighborhood, towing a U-Haul of his belongings, so that his neighbors would know that he was taking everything with him. Wendy wouldn’t let me do it.
Dying was nothing like imagining you could die, and when he was dying he fought for every additional breath, just to breathe one more time, until the final one. He had said that time sharing his life with me was worth all the suffering. I omitted that part in his eulogy, but told everyone at the church about the U-Haul. Everyone laughed at that, and I had instantly regretted listening to Wendy.
I hadn’t told Andrea about my last night with Uncle Bob yet, so I told her how I had been staying up all night the final week, before I knew it would be the final week, listening to him transition from mumbling in English to French to Latin. I understood some of the French, only because so many of my friends were Cajun, but hand’t understood the Latin. I had tried, and for the final few days had to lean in and listen closely because his breath was so faint. When his breaths began spacing a minute or two apart, he stopped speaking at all. A few hours later, I had almost drifted off to sleep when he convulsed and shit himself, what Hospice had said would be a sign of passing. It wasn’t as graceful as movie scenes. It stank, and I felt ashamed that I was revulsed as I tried CPR and tried to push Auntie Lo away as she bawled and spilled her whisky all over the couch. She collapsed, and I drug her to the bedroom, and called Hospice.
I said I didn’t know if I could have taken his life at the end, even though he had been in so much pain, and even if that’s what he had wanted, because we had spoken so much about appreciating life. Granny was the only one I had spoken with about death since then, and only because she was dying and wanted to go differently. She didn’t want to become Johnny.
Andrea rested a hand on my thigh again, driving with her other hand and staring at the road in silence. She was always wonderful that way, never forcing words, and I sat with her, silently, and stared at the road. Neither of us knew what we’d do, and that was a unifying moment.
Without discussing why, she took an exit and u-turned back towards Baton Rouge. I had another appointment, anyway.
She pulled into the circular drive of Belaire High School, and I grabbed my backpack and hopped out and told her I’d see her later. I felt the urge to kiss her again, but decided against it. She had forgiven me for breaking her heart a year before, but she would never date me again. I was like her little brother now, she had said, especially because she would be beginning college and I was still in high school. Besides, I would be leaving for the army, and planned on never returning to Louisiana, so she saw no point.
She drove along the school bus semi-circle in front of school and turned towards Florida Boulevard. As I watched her van drive away, I saw my dad’s old house across the street, where he had used two extra bedrooms to store drugs he was selling. But that had been a long time ago, at least eight years. I couldn’t imagine myself back then, but I still had the memories.
I could see the window I used to stare out of, impressed by all of the big kids going to high school, sneaking out to smoke cigarettes at the nearby park, or using the park for fights after school. I remember wanting to be like them, but now that I was about to begin my senior year I couldn’t remember why. Now, all I wanted to do was finish school and leave Louisiana.
I walked around the back of school, towards the Driver’s Education building, and smelled cigarette smoke. I walked around the annex classroom and saw Sarge, Belaire’s security guard and ROTC drill instructor, smoking a filtered Kool. He was in uniform, and the 82nd patch was on his right shoulder, a “AA” for “All Americans” and a tab that said “Airborne. He saw me and exhaled a stream of smoke towards the sky, and smiled a toothy grin.
“What up, Magic Man?” he asked. “Got anything new to show me?”
I said sure, and asked if I could do something with his cigarette. He tapped his finger to flick off the ashes, and handed me his half smoked Kool. I broke off the filter and said, in mock sarcasm, that he was a sissy for using one. He laughed, but didn’t take his eyes off my hands. I told him smoking was bad for you, held his lit cigarette in my right hand, stared at it for a moment, then shoved it into a small opening in my left fist, between my thumb and first finger. I winced in discomfort, and blew a few puffs of air towards my fist to cool it off.
As Sarge stared at my left hand with eyes wide open and a shocked look on his face, my right hand naturally fell to my side, and I slipped my thumb into my back pocket, quickly pulling it out but leaving the metal thumb tip with Sarge’s crushed cigarette inside. The filter wouldn’t have crushed enough to fit, and I had attended a magic lecture where the professional magician suggested calling someone a sissy to justify breaking off the filter. I bought a thumb tip from him and practiced with rolled up pieces of napkin before showing anyone. I had never used a lit cigarette, and was pleasantly surprised that the tip worked.
My right hand came back up, palm forward and fingers spread, and I unnecessarily asked him to watch carefully. I opened my left hand to show it empty. Instantly, Sarge shouted “Holy Shit!” and cursed ineligibly and laughed and danced around and looked towards the sky and laughed some more and said he never got tired of my magic tricks.
While he was dancing around, I reached into my back right pocket again and felt for the new Kool next to the smoldering thumb tip – I hoped it wasn’t burning a hole into my butt – and pulled out the Kool in thumb palm. I had put it there in case I saw Sarge.
When he stopped laughing and was looking back at me, I stared at a spot in the air between us and reached out with my hand and produced the new Kool. He went into another fit of laughter and dancing around, took the Kool, lit it, and took a few drags as his chuckles calmed down.
After what was probably his final chuckle, he asked, “So, Magic Man, are you Airborne now?” I showed him my contract, and he took it and stuck his Kool in his mouth so he could trace the words with a finger. He called that the “fine print.” He was the only one I had asked for advice about joining the army, and he had told me again and again to make sure that everything I wanted was written down, to never trust a recruiter, and to enjoy all the pussy I could now, because after I signed the contract I’d go to Fort Bragg, home of 45,000 soldiers, where, according to Sarge, “Even fat women can be choosey.” It was home to America’s 18th Airborne Command, the 82nd, Special Forces, and Delta Force; and only one small town nearby, where extremely satisfied young ladies didn’t suffer the insecurities of high school girls vying for attention.
Sarge finished reading the fine print, and said, “Man, you’re giving up $200/month. Not many of you young men do that.” He was right. Most of the seniors I knew at Belaire last year choose the sign-on bonus instead of the college fund, accepting a thousand dollars now instead of giving $100/month, much less another $100 for savings bonds. But, they didn’t have Granny teaching them about retirement savings and what she called “delayed gratification” towards more freedom than I could imagine at 16. They didn’t understand what a 3,000% rate of return was.
“What you gonna study in college? You could use that head of yours to do anything you want.”
I told him I wasn’t sure. I didn’t really understand what college was. No one in my family had even graduated high school, much less gone to college. All of my teachers had college degrees, I assumed, but none of them inspired me to be like them. In fact, they were all pudgy, except for Mr. Vaughn, and they seemed tired or grumpy all the time. And they were hypocrites, suspending kids for smoking when I could smell cigarettes on their clothes every morning. They were uninspiring.
Wendy’s boyfriend, Mike, had gone to college. He was even valadictorian, which I knew about because even Belaire had a valadictorian and saladictorian. They were the smartest kids, and, like Mike, were nice but uninteresting. People like Sarge were fun.
I told Sarge that saying I’d go to college felt right, even though I didn’t know much about it. College seemed like something that few people could do, and I wanted to take on all of the challenges I could since finally winning a few wrestling matches last year, and finishing the junior olympic training camp, which only a few wrestlers attended. I had discovered that I enjoyed challenges and trying what few people attempted, even if I rarely won.
What I didn’t tell Sarge was that I wanted to appreciate life without worrying about money. That had been Uncle Bob and Granny’s concern: money. They were both old, to me, but said that they hadn’t expected to die before 64, and hadn’t foreseen how hospital bills would eat away their life savings. That was the closest thing they had to regrets, and I didn’t want to have any. The army was a step towards not having regrets. It was way to pay for college, or a career, but mostly it was a one-way ticket out of Louisiana, literally. My contract included a bus trip from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, and then on to Fort Benning, Georgia.
I’d have choices after the army. My choice would probably depend on if I could get on a college wrestling team then. If not, I could stay in the army, go to college for a job, or become a professional magician. I’d have my lifetime to use the college fund, if I wanted. If I didn’t, I’d loose the $1,200, but that didn’t seem like a big deal in the long run. Even after giving up $200/month, I’d still earn almost $400 before taxes, more than I earned working after school every day for a month. I figured I’d be rich enough from $400 a month to jump-start any career I wanted, especially with my food and housing paid for. I’d probably even have money enough left over to travel, like Wendy and Granny always said they wanted to. I’m not sure why I wanted to travel, but if other people complained about not being able to do something that they longed for, I’m sure I’d enjoy doing it. I’d probably even enjoy telling them how great it was.
Sarge and I chatted a bit about Belaire and sports, and I thanked him for helping me out over the years. Before I joined the wrestling team, he had caught me and my friends skipping class to smoke behind the annex buildings, but didn’t turn us in to the Mr. Vaughn. Sarge only turned in guys and girls who got into trouble. Ironically, they’d get suspended from school, where they didn’t want to be, anyway. School seemed illogical.
My friends and I never did anything bad, despite Wendy’s insistence otherwise. We never got in trouble. We just disliked being in school. Taking smoke breaks kept us from skipping school all together. From listening to Granny and Wendy and Uncle Bob, it was just like adults taking smoke breaks at work.
Over the years, Sarge had taken turns with me and wrestlers and track runners sharing our stories, and told us stories about serving in Vietnam with the 82nd. He made it sound like his team was just like ours, people of all colors helping each other every day. But, instead of a coach they had a platoon sergeant. We asked Sarge if he had become a platoon sergeant, and he said yes, that he had become a first sergeant, which was like a platoon sergeant of the platoon sergeants, called the Top. He had retired, and worked at Belaire because he liked helping his neighborhood. And because he needed money for beer. Apparently, the 82nd liked to drink, and he said a joke at Fort Bragg was that the 82nd AA patch stood for Alcoholics Anonymous.
The marines attracted most of my friends who wanted to wear the fancy uniform. They responded to the marine’s television commercials, “The Few. The Proud. The Marines,” and thought the army’s commercials were silly. The navy seemed to attract people looking for careers, probably because they advertised high-tech ships and submarines. The air force seemed to attract people who loved airplanes. I was unique in joining the army, and even I admitted that the army’s “We do more by 9am than most people do all day,” and “Be all you can be” slogans made the army sound like… well, like sissies. And their physical requirements were easy. I could have done 10 pushups as a scrawny 126 pound sophomore.
According to magic lectures on the psychology of fooling people, magicians use techniques from advertisements, to direct people towards something so that they’re misdirected away from what you’re secretly doing. So, instead of blindly reacting to commercials, I researched who actually went to combat the most. I used the public library’s microphish to look through old newspapers, like Andrea had shown me. The 82nd Airborne easily won. In the 1980’s, they had rescued U.S. embassy workers in Greneda and Honduras, and before that had served in Vietnam.
Then, I went to friends’ houses who had VCR’s and movies, and watched movies about WWII and Vietnam. Only then did I ask Sarge’s opinion. He had made the 82nd sound much tougher than anything I saw on television.
“Man, you’ll do fine. I’ve seen you at wrestling practice. Basic training won’t be nothin’ for you. But wait until you get to the 82nd and do your first jump. Man! It ain’t nothin’ like they show you on TV. You’ll be crammed inside a C-130 with 80 pounds of guns and ammo strapped to your ass, and 64 ‘troopers trying to shove you out the door at 4AM, when everyone’s tired and cramped and airsick and wanting to do anything to get out of that bird!”
He laughed hard and shook his head, then said, “And forget that 1,250 foot jump in Airborne school. Ha! We jumped from 800 feet in training, and 450 feet in combat. Barely enough time for your ‘chute to open. It takes 250 feet before your ‘chute opens. And when it does… Man! It yanks your balls so hard that you’ll wish you were back in high school playing with ‘em gently. Then it takes 200 feet to slow down enough to not break your leg when you hit the ground and roll into the fall. But fallin’ fast is a good thing when enemy’s shootin’ at you in the air. Man! You’ll wish you were fallin’ faster when those bullets start flyin’ by your head! But you’ll still be glad you’re outta that bird.”
I didn’t understand most of what he said, but I was caught up in his excitement. His hands were flying as he talked and his eyes were on me, but his mind was in the past. He definitely enjoyed having an audience, probably the same way that I enjoyed talking about wrestling tournaments with anyone who would listen.
When he finished talking about parachuting, we chatted about things I don’t recall until I asked him if he knew where Coach was. Sarge said probably the gym, or the Driver’s Ed annex building. I thanked him, said goodbye, and went to the gym that was shared between the wrestling mats and the football weight room.
The gym was empty, except for Coach, unrolling the mats. His tiny, squat body somehow manuevering the unweildy mats out of summer storage and onto the gym floor. After a few months, the foam wanted to remain rolled up, and it usually took a few of us to flatten them. I called out. Coach stopped and stood upright, as much as Coach could stand upright, and he smiled and said, “Magik! Good to see you!” And he walked towards me, extending his hand, as I walked towards him.
His right hand found mine, and his left hand grasped my tricep, and he looked up at me, still smiling, and asked if I was ready for school. I said sure, and asked if I could help with the mats, and we spent the next half hour straightening them and mopping them with cleaner and fungicide. When we finished, he said he had some paperwork to do, but that I could come with him to the Driver’s Ed building to talk, if I wanted. I said sure, and followed him as he sauntered outside to the small building by the driver’s ed car, the one with two steering wheels. Ironically, I had never taken driver’s ed. Now that I could get a license, I thought I should learn to drive. But not from Coach. I’d rather focus on wrestling with him, especially because I wouldn’t see him much until season began.
We entered the annex, and Coach asked me to wait. He fumbled around for something on his desk, and I knew what was about to happen.
“Hey Magik,” he said in his raspy voice, smiling so mischieviously that anyone watching would know he was up to something. “Watch this…”
His left hand came up, palm towards me, with a business card back-palmed, but his hands were so small that the white edges poked between his thick fingers. He smiled a sly smirk, his light grey eyes twinkled, and he snapped the card into existence. Poorly. Like every other time.
He hand’t improved since he first showed that to me when I met him two years ago, when my friends on the wrestling team introduced me to him as Magic Man. He had smiled the exact same way back then, and, for some unknown reason, I instantly felt comfortable and laughed and joined the team. It had been the best decision of my life.
I took his card and saw that it still said “Dale Ketelsen, Driver’s Education Teacher, Belaire High School.” I never asked why he didn’t add wrestling coach and assistant football coach, and he never asked about my home life. That’s probably why I felt so comfortable.
When he stopped chuckling, I made his card disappear. He laughed, and repeated that it was good to see me. I felt just like it had two years ago, when he shook my hand the first time, and how he shoot it after every wrestling match. I had wrestled 76 matches last year. Coach was the most consistent person I had ever known. 40 years later, I would still say that.
We talked a bit, and I told him I had joined the army. He asked if I took the college fund, and I said yes, and told him about the Series EE bonds. I think he had mentioned them on a wrestling team road trip, but I didn’t understand those words back then, so I wasn’t sure. He didn’t seem surprised, so he may have remembered telling me about them. Then again, I had never seen Coach appear surprised about anything.
He asked about my class schedule, and I told him I still needed to register for classes. I had missed registration when I was with Uncle Bob. I told him I was going inside to find Mr. Vaughn and register. Coach reached out and clasped my tricep again, and looked up at me and held up a stubby finger. He did that when he was about to say something important.
“Just one thing. If you’re going to be Captain, I’d like you to get at least a 3.0 grade point average, not just the state’s minimum 2.0” I said OK without hesitating. He hadn’t told me to – I never did anything anyone told me to do, even Coach – but he said he’d ‘like me to,’ and I knew he wouldn’t expect anything of me that I couldn’t do. And, after last year, when the team voted me as this year’s Captain, I had enough confidence to try anything.
I said goodbye, and went inside school and found Mr. Vaughn. He was a tall, thin, grey haired man who used to be a History teacher, and always added a tidbit of history whenever we talked, a little learning Lagniappe, he called it. Lagniappe was a Cajun word for a gift given freely, without expecting anything in return. I had learned that from him.
We hadn’t always been friendly. He had suspended me for cursing at a teacher two years before, and because of state rules that made me ineligible to compete in sports. I had to leave the wrestling team after only 16 matches, only three weeks into the season. I hadn’t even won a single match, so I wasn’t too upset about being suspended and kicked off the team. Mr. Vaughn was kind about it, though, and reminded me that I knew the rules before I cursed in school – at a teacher – and told me that he had to maintain standards. He let me practice with the team, though, but only after I asked. He had said I was like the Prodigal Son, and wished me luck.
I was 14 then. Just a kid. I had just met my grandfather for the first time in seven years, only a few months after he got out of prison, and seeing him again sparked me to mend my ways. That’s when I started seeking out people who seemed to have life together, good jobs and stable families. And, for some reason, I thought of Coach and Mr. Vaughn. Both had known Big Daddy, which is what we called my grandfather. Mr. Vaughn had even been one of the leaders of the teacher’s union when I was a kid, though I didn’t remember him from them. He said my grandfather had helped Louisiana teachers win a strike and get more pay, and that he was a good man, despite his trouble with the law. I realized then that even Mr. Vaughn was fooled by Big Daddy. Coach hadn’t commented, and we never discussed personal matters, so I never learned if he had been fooled, too. I just remember that he simply shook my hand and said it was good to have me back. Two years had passed quickly since then.
I said I needed to register for classes, and he asked the school secretary to pull out my file, which was full of a few disciplinary notes from two years ago and not much since, and said that the secretary had assigned me to take the classes I kept failing, because they were necessary to graduate, and she had graciously assigned me to as many easy classes as possible so that I’d be able to maintain Louisiana’s minimum GPA requirements for athletes. I told him Coach believed I could earn a 3.0, and I asked if I could change my schedule and take Physics and Calculus.
In my mind, that was a logical sequence. But Mr. Vaughn questioned why. He pointed out that I had yet to pass Chemistry – I had failed it twice – and reminded me that I had failed Geometry my 10th grade year and had to focus on it last year in order to remain on the wrestling team, and that I would have to pass Trigonometry this year in order to meet the state requirements of three maths. The secretary had scheduled me for Chemistry and Trigonometry, and added theater and woodshop and public speaking so that I could focus on graduating.
I told him that was in the past. I said I was emancipated now, and had even joined the army. I showed him my paperwork. He read it with a surprised look on his face, but he didn’t probe. When he finished looking at my paperwork, he let me bounce around different facts that, somehow, aligned in my mind and left me with no doubt that I should take Physics and Calculus.
I had been in various theater and public speaking classes since I began Belaire in the 10th grade. I had fun in those classes, because I could practice magic and Miss Tichalai never seemed to notice when I skipped. And I always got an A in her classes. But I didn’t find them challenging. I wanted to begin practicing for the 82nd, and Coach thought I could earn higher grades. And, the Physics and Calculus teachers would be new for me; I didn’t enjoy classes with the Chemistry teacher, just like I hadn’t enjoyed the Geometry teacher. Not only did they take attendance and report me when I skipped, they just talked in front of the chalk board all hour, every day, all year long. It was torture. I probably joined the wrestling, track, and swimming teams just so I would be excused for missing classes.
I told Mr. Vaughn that I wanted to be all I could be. Even though that army slogan seemed silly, it was the closest to how I felt. I said I wanted to know I had tried my best, the only thing Coach had ever asked of me, and I told him the last English words Uncle Bob had said before he died: live without regret.
I believe Mr. Vaugh heard something in my voice that sounded different than before summer vacation, because he listened to my randomized reasoning without interrupting, and agreed to change my schedule. He told me he’d check in on me in a few weeks, and that if I changed my mind he’d change my schedule back before my grades suffered. He said it was important to graduate; even my army contract depended on it.
He always ended conversations with a history lesson, as if he knew teenagers resisted learning and would leave as soon as he offered a lesson. He asked if I knew about Jason and the Argonauts. Like my given name, he said, and waited for a response. I said of course, they were the first super heroes, and that Jason had led their ship. The Argo, he added. Even Hercules traveled on the Argo, before he became known as the world’s strongest man. Mr. Vaughn ended the lesson by congratulating me on being voted Captain, and said he knew I’d do a fine job. I thanked him, and he shook my hand and said, “I wish you success, Magik.”
I went outside and waited for Andrea. I stared at my dad’s old house while I waited, and wondered where he was. I hadn’t seen him since he got out of prison last year.
I was lost in thought until I heard Guns and Roses blaring “Welcome to the Jungle,” and looked up and saw Andrea’s van pulling up to a stop sign in front of school. I jogged towards her and hopped in, and we went to her parent’s house, rockin’ out with Axl Rose as the next song came up, “It’s So Easy.”
Cars are crashing every night
I drink and drive everything’s in sight
I make the fire, but I miss the firefight
I hit the bullseye every night
It’s so easy, easy
When everybody’s trying to please me, baby
Yeah, it’s so easy, easy
When everybody’s trying to please me
It’s so easy
But nothing seems to please me
It all fits so right
When I fade into the night
So come with me
Don’t ask me where ‘cause I don’t know
I’ll try to please you
I ain’t got no money, but it goes to show
It’s so easy, so fucking easy
It’s so easy, so damn easy
Later that year, all of Belaire High School’s class officers would be thrown from the back of a truck on their way to a football game. All would die, except for the valadictorian, who spent a week in the hospital. The driver, who was 18, had been drinking and was sentenced to jail for manslaughter. Sandy, and most of the school, was devistated, and held services, where we saw their families destraught and bawling and questioning why bad things happen to good people. No one sought revenge: the only reason the driver was charged with a crime was because he was 18, a legal adult. Just like me, I realized. Even though I was 16, in court I would be an adult. That’s when I realized that even smart kids did foolish things, and I took no solace in suddenly being considered one of the smart kids, if only because our class had just lost the five smartest ones we knew.
Sandy was probably the most beautiful girl in school, valadictorian and Homecoming Queen, and she would forever wear a knee brace and walk with a limp. She and I would talk about people we love dying as I, ironically, helped her with math. But I never told her, or anyone else, that Big Daddy had somehow avoided jail for manslaughter, just like my cousin Donald and Senator Ted Kennedy. I had been conditioned since childhood to never discuss my family in public, so I wouldn’t share how my family joked about how easy it was to get away with murder. Instead, I silently observed the consequences of manslaughter on the friends and families who cried incessantly and asked why God took the innocent lives of people they loved.
As I sat beside Sandy in Calculus that year, I had no doubt that I had done the right thing by becoming emancipated and asking Mr. Vaughn to change my schedule. Even though she and I had nothing in common except lost loved ones and math homework, we became friends without needing to know more.
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