I was in the bathroom getting ready for bed Thursday night when the phone suddenly rings and, in between bong rips, I can hear my girlfriend answer it and begin to field questions in that very polite, earnestly slow-speak she uses exclusively for what I can only guess are old people who’ve accidentally misdialed my home and think my girlfriend is either their daughter or granddaughter, to which she plays along every single time so not to upset them. I hear her saying as she’s approaching the bathroom, “Yeah, Carrot Top and Bernie Okra doing the Jambalaya Southern Comedy Tour. Uh-huh. Yeah, no, they’re very entertaining. Uh-huh. No, they’re not food, they’re not food, they’re, they’re real people. Hang on a second, here he is.” And she knocks and opens the door and says, “Hey. It’s your aunt. From New Orleans.”
“My aunt? Which one?” I say.
And she makes her mannish, I-have-no-fucking-idea face and says, “The senator?” She hands me the phone and, bong in hand, comes in and takes seat on the toilet.
“Auntie Mil,” I say, “is that you?”
“Kaplan? Kaplan, it’s your Auntie Mildred.”
“Auntie Mil! How are you?”
“I’m fine, just fine. I’m just calling to let you know, Kaplan, that your Uncle Howard passed away two nights ago.”
Now, I’m going to press the pause button here. My Aunt Mildred is a state senator in Louisiana. The uncle she’s referring to is her younger brother Howie Reeves, a rotund, gregarious man who spent his entire career at the Orleans Public Defenders office, and who at one point in my life I looked up to as a father figure, but lost touch with just about right when I moved out to Oregon, some fifteen years ago.
Now, being a state senator, my aunt is more used to addressing people at a podium than engaging them in any form of dialogue. Plus, she’s like 77, so all I’m doing is holding the phone while she talks, finishing up washing my face at the sink.
I glance over at my girlfriend, still getting high, looking up at me with that same curious earnestness—shrugging, jostling in her seat, leaning slightly forward, holding her breath, eyebrows shooting up and down, wanting to know what’s going on. She looked like she was in a moving car. You know what I’m talking about? Like when people are in vehicles they shimmy and bounce and bob and weave in their seat in all sorts of ways they don’t when they’re just being still. And you don’t think anything of it, because you’re moving, too. But when everything’s stationary, it looks really out of place. She even leaned so far to the side like someone was making a hard left that she slipped and had to use the toilet roll like a Jesus handle, shooting one of her legs out in front of her to keep from falling.
I looked back into the sink. Right then it occurred to me for some reason that talking to my aunt was the first time I’d ever spoken to a politician that wasn’t at a payphone.
Yeah, I know you, McConnell! I’m gonna gun you down like ham in the field! What? No, I’m not calling from a Dairy Mart!
It turns out my entire family down South on the Reeves side consists of lawyers. If I wanted to, I could have totally become a lawyer, entered into the family business. I wouldn’t even need to go to law school. I’d just need to work in the firm as a low-level clerk, and then, after about six months, they’d pick me and four other people to go out and play a game of rodeo poker, and whoever survives would get to be in the firm. The rest would have their bolo ties hung from a weeping willow. Clown paint smeared all over them. I remember walking over to the tree as a child, admiring it, my grandfather saying: “Come here, boy. See that tie right there? Why, that tie right there’s from 19 and 14. It’s from your Great-Great-Uncle Charlie. Had a gimpy leg, he did. Kept him out of the family business. But he was there when ol’ Archduke Franz Ferdinand got shot. I don’t know—where, where was it? Honey!” he called to my grandma. “Where was that Archduke assassinated?”
And my grandmother would always appear right on cue with a tray of something in her hands: “Oh, I don’t know, those Archdukes are getting assassinated all over the place. I never can keep track. Was it Galveston? You boys want some sweet tea?”
One of my cousins is a lawyer now, actually. I can picture him in court, in his coveralls and straw hat. Bare feet. The judge asking him, “Lawyer Reeves, how does your client plead?”
“Your Honor, my client pleads…alligator. Your honor, my client pleads the swamp, and aaaall her wondrous mysteries. Why, what the prosecution’s key witness would have you all believe was that my client was a full one hundred paces from the swamp when the crime was committed, and that his face was clearly made out. But, as any Southern gentleman can tell you, the swamp’s supernatural powers, what government calls ignis fatuus, extends only a mere sixty seven paces from the center. So I ask you, ladies and gentleman of the jury……I rest my case.”
I happen to look over again at my girlfriend, and after ten minutes has now gotten so baked that she’s got the back of her head against the wall, eyes shut, the Eye of Horus floating somewhere above her.
“Thoth says, ‘You’re welcome’,” she suddenly murmurs.
My aunt then says, “Now, hon, I know that you were close to your uncle, so I wanted you to know, he left you some things. I’ll have them posted out to you by Monday.”
“What did he leave me? Did he say?”
“Well, now,” and then she paused, seeming to search for the words, “it’s a costume. I don’t know where it came from, or what use he ever got from it, or what value it would possibly have for you…”
I smiled. “Is it a camel, Auntie Mildred?”
“Why, yes, Kaplan. It is, in fact, a camel costume. And ten cases of frozen…Mexican tacos. The rolled kind.”
There are two very vivid memories I have of my Uncle Howie that are now necessary to mention here. The first, I believe, recounts the first time he ever set foot in a courtroom. He was eighteen years old, and had been dating a woman almost twice his age.
She was one of the youth pastors at First Baptist. She would go into the Chalmette Goodwill on a regular basis and buy…I don’t know…Little Rascals videos, steam them open, watch them and then return them a couple days later for full price. That was how they met. My uncle was one of the cashiers then. They dated for a while, and she revealed she used to get the videos to masturbate to. With a dildo the size of a barber pole, he told me. He finally broke it off with her, and right after that she told everyone who would listen to her that she was raped. By him.
At the trial he tried to tell the judge and jury she was crazy, and I remember it wasn’t looking good for him—they were going to actually convict him, I believe—but she, well, had a spell. Pinched a loaf right there in court. I was there. We all were. You should’ve seen the stenographer trying to spell out, “Brrrrbrrbbbrbrbrbnnnghhhh.”
The judge looked at him and apologized. He bought taquitos for the entire court that day, after he was released.
I mean, except for her. She’d had enough taquitos in her life.
And one final tale. The story of how his career began, and the story that sums up how I’ll always remember him. He was on trial, and he was defending himself. This was about five years later. He was doing it not because he couldn’t get anyone to defend him, but because he wanted the courtroom experience and no one at the time would give it to him. Because he was only in his first year of law school. So he set about getting caught wearing strange attire outside the Elysian Fields CrescentCare facility in New Orleans, setting it up so that it seemed as if…well…I’ll let them tell it.
I was only eleven, but I’ll never forget the scene. He was tried by the same judge who was presiding when his girlfriend took that shit right there on the witness stand. And that judge remembered it.
And the taquitos.
And my uncle, it turned out, didn’t actually want to win the case. He wanted to see what it felt like to lose.
The judge starts off by saying almost immediately, “First of all, Mr. Reeves, I’ve spent time in both New Orleans and Rio, and I have never seen a camel costume set up quite like that. How did you do that, son?”
“Am I under oath?” my uncle asked.
“Not for that question.”
“I’ll pass later. We’ll get taquitos,” he said.
“And second, secondly,” the judge said, “you had a hole cut into the back of the camel costume, didn’t you?”
He looked at the bailiff, totally serious, and said, “Do I have to answer that?” and as the perplexed bailiff shrugged, Uncle Howie said to the judge, “I did.” Then he amended, “There was. A—excuse me, your honor—a hole was cut into the back of a camel costume.”
The judge went on, trying not to chuckle, “You convinced these CrescentCare people to put parts of themselves in the hole and sometimes you were in the camel costume, this document alleges.”
“Your honor,” my uncle said, “I don’t see what that has to do with anything. They had nothing better to do.”
“And one last question, sir,” the judge said, trying to hold back. “How did—?”
“Really?” the judge beamed. “Regular old wet/dry vac, or…?”
“Yeah. Mini version. And a battery pack.”
There was a murmur in the court, as half of everyone there was trying to hold it in as well as the judge. My uncle didn’t even crack a smile. The judge banged his gavel, lowered his head then lifted it, his face now pinkish with mirth, starting to sweat a little, and said, “Well, before sentencing, I believe I’ve had all my questions answered…maybe beyond my satisfaction,” he chuckled once, “and I’d just like to say that this has been most entertaining, Mr. Reeves. One hundred hours of community service. Away from those CrescentCare people.” And he banged his gavel.
Howard Reeves was a local legend after that.
I’m going to miss him dearly.