BY DAVID H.
I had few reservations when some of my friends wanted to attend my extended family’s annual crawfish boil in Louisiana. Perhaps it was because I had grown somewhat immune to the personalities of my family. Perhaps I had subconsciously learned to do a very good job avoiding them all while I was visiting. I’m not really sure what led me to think that a trip to Louisiana would be a good idea for the four of us during our summer break from school, but the reservations should have been there in droves.
In Louisiana, things can get relatively weird. It’s a state where you can eat at a 24-hour diner that has found newfound success in the wake of the owner’s participation on the reality television show Survivor. It’s a state where I’ve had blood wiped on my face after my first, and only, deer kill. It’s a state where I am known simply as “Buddy.”
I began questioning my decision when, after a classic road-trip-movie kind of drive where my friends and I were really laughing it up, listening to music loudly, and getting to know one another, we parked the car in PawPaw’s driveway and didn’t even have time to grab our things before he made his presence known. The high-pitched squawk of a voice came out of his reddened face, a trait I’ve often attributed to his remarkable tolerance for downing foods so spicy that most grown men would cry smelling them. Nana still carries a travel-sized bottle of Tabaso in her purse for him.
“Buddy! Whatcha doin’ with a bunch of damn hippies in the car?!?”
We looked ourselves over, fully aware that 8-hour drives certainly take their toll on one’s appearance, but unaware that such appearances would be grounds for personal offense. As I thought it over though, thinking of past experiences with him, I decided that we had actually gotten off relatively easy. We walked in with him muttering inaudibly about David W.’s ponytail.
I wish I could say that PawPaw was an outlier of crazy in our family, but such is not the case. As can often happen in Southern families, the branches of the tree get a bit twisted. Their daughter Kerry had once married a man named Harley, an acquaintance of my dad. A few years later, my dad married my mom. When Harley and Kerry divorced a few years after that, my dad inadvertently introduced him to my mom’s sister Marie. One thing led to another, and I found myself fated, in a sense, to be Harley’s nephew no matter which side of the family you’re talking about.
I said my dad “inadvertently” introduced him to Marie because anyone who knows Harley knows that no one would ever purposely keep him as a relative. Family like Harley comes solely as happenstance or, as I suggested earlier, fate.
And it was Harley I had brought my friends to meet.
During our drive down, I tried to prepare them with a few stories that were family favorites: his insistence on being capable of shooting a deer three hundred yards away between the eyes with only a bow and arrow, for instance, or the time he assured my aunt (who lived down the street from him) that there was no intruder outside their house, “and I know because I can see you in the scope of my rifle.” I relayed these stories to my friends, but they of course did not believe me.
Nor did they believe my explanation of the route Harley had once plotted between his workplace and home that, in the event of a freak, citywide flood, he could navigate using nothing but his grappling hook and the trees along the way. Upon arriving home, he would then be able to access his store of rations and inflatable raft that he kept in the attic storage.
Harley was remarkably insane. He was the outlier…of both sides of my family. And they frustratingly refused to believe my stories, chalking it up to my penchant for good old-fashioned hyperbole. I simply couldn’t get it across that Harley himself was hyperbole. You could not exaggerate this guy.
After the crawfish boil, I had decided it was time to finally just go and meet my uncle. I’m sure they began forming their first opinions as we reached his driveway, where they saw his black pickup truck with its bumper sticker that simply noted, “My boss is a Jewish carpenter.” No one said a thing, for fear we might be in earshot, but looks were exchanged in eager anticipation.
We knocked on the door and Uncle Harley answered in what is something of a uniform for him. He likes to go with the faded and durable blue jeans, and then tops it off with the dual-denim motif of a blue-jean button-up shirt, something a weaker man might shy away from. The shirt? Uncle Harley actually likes to keep his buttoned only halfway, keeping his hairy, beet-red chest on display above an impossible gut that must have developed from championship-level beer drinking. Around his neck dangles a medium-length gold chain that holds a large Star of David, something we could only later surmise is in honor of his Boss.
“Budreaux! What up, my man?” He patted me hard on the shoulder and led us in, introducing himself to each of my friends. We followed him to the back patio, where he offered us all a Bud Light.
My uncle is almost bearable before noon, but unfortunately noon is generally his strict cutoff time for sobriety. On weekends, every noon until midnight is Loaded Harley time, a period marked with long, rambling stories that seem to have points known only to the man speaking, arbitrary opinions spewed and defended endlessly, loud declarations of impossible feats, and ended only when he pulls his guns out to show everyone. That night was no different.
On the porch, with our Bud Lights in hand, Uncle Harley started with David W.
“I was noticing your ponytail, my man. That’s real cool. That’s real cool. I used to have myself a ponytail when I lived out in San Diego. It was awesome out there. Used to surf all day, that’s all we’d do out there was surf. I had this long hair, and I’d surf with it down, longer that yours,” indicating David’s inferior tail.
“We’d surf till there wasn’t no more light to surf, you know? Till the sun went down. And we’d get out of the water, and I’d just pull my hair back into a ponytail, longer than that one,” again indicating David’s hair. “Next morning, I was back in the water surfing. Every evening, pull it back in that ponytail. My hair was never really all the way dry, but it’d never mildew because I’d be back in that water every morning.
“One day I’m getting tired of my hair, and so I’m walking down the strip of stores on Ocean Beach, and I look in this fancy-type of salon. And I see this guy in there getting his hair cut, she’s putting all sorts of gel and shit in this dude’s hair, right, and making his hair look like he’s always running. You know, like…’whoosh’.” Harley demonstrated a sort of feathered hairstyle with his fingers. “Like he was always running. I went in that salon and told the girl, ‘I want you to make it look like I’m always running.’ She cuts that ponytail off, starts putting that gel and shit in my hair, pulls out the blowdryer, and had it all feathered and shit. I looked like I was always running. I walked out of there, just reached up and messed up my hair, trying to get that gel out of there. Never looked like I was running again.”
Somewhere between awe and awkward silence, David W. managed to utter a “wow” that we all hoped would pass as a fitting response to Harley’s tale. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, really. It was a story, all right, but what did he want from us in return? I tried my best to change the subject.
“So, have you seen any good movies lately, Uncle Harley?” I asked for us all.
“Man, I just watched this movie, Enemy Mine, you ever see that one? You like movies, Budman…you ever see that one? Enemy Mine?” I have found that when you express a vague interest in film at any point in your late teens, you become the go-to person when people bring up any random movie they saw on TV.
This one, as with most movies people bring up, was one I had not heard of. In fact, I couldn’t even understand what he was saying exactly. “Enemy Mind?” Was it like A Beautiful Mind? Rather that voice my ignorance, I just shook my head and let him continue.
“It was great. It’s got Dennis Quaid and guy, uh…Louis Gossett, Jr.”
Hold on. Louis Gossett, Jr.? You’ve piqued my interest, Uncle Harley.
He continued in what turned out to be a conversation that took longer in describing movie than it would have taken to drive to the store, rent it and watch it ourselves. Harley stopped exactly once in his retelling, at the end of this line:
“So these dudes are now, like, metamorphosing…you know what I mean when I say “metamorphosing?” For some reason, he addressed this to my girlfriend Amy. She took a stab at it.
“Changing?” But a textbook definition wouldn’t suffice.
“Yeah, but I mean, these guys weren’t just changing, they were fuckin’ turning into aliens, man!” And his recap went on. When it seemed he was done, David W. politely tried to conclude in an amazed tone.
“Wow, that sounds like a crazy movie.”
“And that’s just the first half! “ He took our incredulous looks for excitement. “No, just kidding.” Relief.
“Serious.” He laughed, and then reassured us one last time that he was kidding.
“No, I’m serious.”
As I never went out and rented Enemy Mine, I’m still not sure whether he ruined the ending for me that night. To be perfectly honest, the movie and his 2-hour review were completely forgotten by the end of the night. At Harley’s prompting, we retired to the living room, the four of us sitting on his couches while my uncle paced in front of his television and stereo system that we were facing. We tried to make small talk amongst ourselves, but Harley interjected, changing gears from movies to music.
“What musicians do you guys listen to?” he forced at us. We thought a moment. Such questions couldn’t be taken lightly by self respecting college students.
“I guess, like…Elliott Smith. Radiohead…um…Gran—“
“You like the Smashing Pumpkins?” Harley suggested knowingly.
The Smashing Pumpkins, while a great band, had been on my radar about a decade prior to this question, but I conceded with, “Sure, I like the Smashing Pumpkins.”
“You want a real musician, you know Johnny Winter? Guy’s incredible. You show me the best riff from your favorite band, you give me the best Smashing Pumpkins guitar lick…Johnny Winter’s got 10 better licks…in one song. Any song.” David W. went to what was becoming his standby response to Harley.
“Wow,” he said.
“Any song. This guy…let me just play something for you guys.”
Uncle Harley went to his CD collection, tapping a few on the spine before finding the album he was looking for. “This guy was an albino, you know, the white hair and shit. Just white, white. But he could play guitar, all right.” He pushed play and remained crouched at the player until it was evident the music was adequately blasting from his wood-grain speakers, at which point he stood up slowly and faced us again, listening and nodding slowly as we watched him bob in front of his sound system.
“THIS GUY, JOHNNY WINTER,” he was now yelling over the extreme volume, “PLAYED GUITAR BETTER THAN ANYONE, EVER! HE WROTE SO MANY GUITAR LICKS, HE PUT LIKE TEN IN EACH SONG! THE SMASHING PUMPKINS DIDN’T DO THAT!”
I’ve seen people jokingly act out the occasional air-guitar riff when the mood strikes, but at this point, when the music had reached a particularly sweet guitar solo, Uncle Harley proceeded right into the most dramatized, dead-serious use of an air guitar that I have ever seen. Eyes closed, with the slight bite on his bottom lip, he ripped through the lick as though he’d been practicing for us.
We sat watching him, silent only because we were using every bit of muscle in our body to restrain our laughter. We refused to look at each other, knowing that even a casual glance with subsequent eye-contact might yield an unstoppable fit; rather, we focused on trying to look taken aback by Harley’s glory. We must have done a good job, because Harley, always a modest fellow, stopped playing and instead pointed back at the speakers, making sure we full well understood where the real magic was coming from. Not from himself, no. The true magic was in…
“Johnny Winter,” he said simply as he turned the volume down. “Not one Smashing Pumpkins song can touch this man. And the Smashing Pumpkins are a great band.” He went back to the volume dial, and set back into his personal guitar display. I made the mistake of forgetfully casting a look of disbelief at David W., at which point, after making that dreaded eye contact, I couldn’t hold in my laughter and I sprinted to the bathroom down the hall. There I lay on the cramped bathroom floor, listening to the blaring Johnny Winter riffs coming down the hall and through the door, laughing at the top of my lungs until I was crying, holding my ribs where it hurt.
I thought about the dumbfounded looks on my friends’ faces as I had hurried out of the living room, silently pleading with me not to leave, and it just made me laugh harder.
I finally emerged several minutes later, but realized halfway down the hallway that I was already losing it again, so my only choice was to go straight through the living room, where I saw the audience still subjected to Harley’s demonstration, and into the adjoining kitchen. It only took a few minutes for each of my friends to join me in there, leaving Harley to turn down the music and join us, guns in tow.
He was ready for us to hold his rifles.
One look from David W. as he was told to feel the sheer weight of the gun, and his response, yet another “Wow,” told me everything I’d wanted to hear: they believed me.