by Nate Waggoner
“I ate all your marshmallow fluffernutter. Put it in your memoirs.”
I’ve just moved across the country to Berkeley, California to attend a post-graduate creative writing program at San Francisco State University. I live with my aunt Jai, who is an art teacher and assistant principal at Malcolm X Elementary. In Jai’s art classroom, eighteen little buddies watercolor at four tables. Ephemera covers every inch of the room’s walls: kachinas, Dia de los Muertos masks, various gourds, several globes, a colander, a painting of a prehistoric fish, two sombreros stacked on top of one another, a first-grader-sized papier-mache representation of a kabuki character, and two or three rows of clay masks, many with long noses extending heavenward. Some of the masks seem to be original characters, others resemble Shrek or Hello Kitty. A sign reads, “Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be an Artist.” Through one window, it looks like clouds are gathering, and through another there is only sunlight.
“The trick,” Jai says one day as I’m following her around for a school writing assignment, “is finding something school-appropriate. Like when we do M.C. Escher, some kid always finds the weenie on the devil in the corner, I mean jeez Louise…” She’s very thin and wears loose-fitting, casual clothes– a Malcolm X hoodie, paint-spattered black pants, and pink-and-black Vans. She has the same isosceles nose as my father and I, and a chin that juts when she emphasizes words like, “appropriate.”
Jai was active in the punk rock scene in San Francisco in the ‘70s, and she bought me Murder Ballads by Nick Cave for my fifteenth birthday. She saw the Dead Kennedys a bunch of times at Mabuhay Gardens, and once, at a Butthole Surfers concert, someone puked on the Saddle Oxfords she had just bought. Because of the work that she does, her general attitude towards life, and the house she lives in, her collection of tribal masks and her backyard with its avocados and chickens, I think of her as someone admirably adept at joining a countercultural aesthetic and worldview with a practical approach to adulthood.
Some paintbrush-cleaning water spills and several kids start saying, “It’s an oil spill, it’s an oil spill!” One girl, Montserrat, cleans the table with a rag while a boy flexes his arm in a strongman pose. A kid named Neruda comes up and asks about my notebook, which says “Art of Narrative” on the front. “Art… of… time,” he misreads, which strikes me as kind of profound. Then he starts trying to climb on me.
Much of the work of being an assistant principal, and more generally much of the work of being Jai Waggoner, is getting other people to volunteer for things. Not so she will have less work to do—she appears to always have the maximum amount of work possible to do—but simply so all the work surrounding her life can be done. Her twenty-year-old son, my cousin Dante, says he has friends who don’t like to come over anymore because of the volunteering she does to them. She says it like this: “Albrey can help me rake these leaves!” And it invariably works. In here it’s the same, institutionalized. She, the principal, and two teachers must find parents to give testimony to the auditors from a group called Distinguished Schools. The parents must be free, and they must be right for the part—they must like to talk and have good things to say about their child’s experience at the school. “What about Noah’s mother?” Jai offers. “Shay, or Shayla? I’m just thinking of people I see around a lot.”
On the door of Jai’s office is a laser-printed photo of Malcolm X standing with Muhammad Ali. There is a shelf of binders with labels like “Art” and “Disaster plan.” Larger-than-life papier-mâché heads, one a cyclops. A rubber rat, some bags with loose popcorn kernels, a headline card game, a game called “Sentence Builder.” A quote on a taped piece of paper: “Fair is foul, foul is fair.” Dante’s senior picture; he’s in a tux. Outside her window, kids chase each other and climb things and read on benches.
“Bored yet?” she asks me. “Any good narrative?”
She is sorting old photographs and matching them with their corresponding school stage production brochures: The Runaway Tortilla; Germs Make Me Sick; The Magic of Math; Macbeth; A Garbage Carol.
She gets me to help with an upcoming assignment on caricatures—ca-ric-atures, she pronounces it, unlike I’ve ever heard. She has photos of John James Audobon, Andy Warhol, and Georgia O’Keefe, and I, in my wonky cartoony style, am to draw them large and simple, for examples. Audobon is easy because he looks like a crazy man in the picture, with wild eyes. Warhol’s features are distinctive: the yellow mess of hair, the big glasses. I have the most trouble with Georgia O’Keefe. She was an attractive woman, but her strong features, the thick eyebrows, the jutting chin, make it hard to show how good-looking she was in an honest way. Worse still, the expression on her face in the picture shows such an ambiguous range of emotions—worry, boredom, fear, aloofness, amusement, all at once. Every way I draw her she merely looks stern, weathered. I can’t tell if there’s too much dark value in my drawing or too little.
Shortly after I move in with Jai, Dante moves back home to start chemotherapy again– he had been diagnosed three years before but had been doing well, had gotten his own place and started community college. He’s skinny from the treatment, but handsome, with high cheekbones, soulful hazel eyes, and bright teeth he flashes cockily when he antagonizes Jai, doing something like reciting the Chris Rock “Who the fuck reupholstered your pussy?” monologue from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at the dinner table. It would be fair to compare his appearance to that of an Adam Levine or a young Luke Wilson or a James Franco. We start watching Game of Thrones after he pitches it to me like this: “You gotta see this show, dawg. This bitch? Has dragons.” He loves to play basketball. He leaves his socks on the kitchen island and drops the newspaper on the floor after he’s done with the sports pages.
“Dante, how was your twentieth birthday, man?”
“Yo, I’m just glad to be alive!”
“Oh wow, that’s really touching to hear you say.”
“No, I mean, I partied so hard I’m lucky to be alive.”
Jai buys Dante a puppy, granting a wish of his he’s had his whole life. Dante names the dog Chance. Chance is an incredibly cute brindle mutt constantly intent on killing himself and destroying the entire house. He eats a whole pie left on the counter, a whole salmon steak, some glitter-decorated Easter egg shells. He howls loudly and relentlessly at the cat on the other side of the glass door at seven every morning and Jai tries to stop him by screaming at him.
It’s always cold in Jai’s house. She won’t turn the heat on when it’s cold out because the noise of the heater scares one of the two cats. She insists that you leave the fan on and the window open in the bathroom when you take a shower because too much heat melts the paint on the walls. She has a bathtub but you can’t use it because that’s where she keeps the kitty litter.
Dante crashes Jai’s car on the way to class one day. He’s fine, but the car is totaled. Every other conversation he has with me around this time goes like this: “Hey man, what are you doing later? Oh, word, you think you’ll drive there? Is it chill if I use your car tonight? Thanks, dawg.” Which means he talks to me twice as often. He takes my car without asking one day and drives out to the country with his boys to buy some pot-growing equipment off this guy and shoot off guns. I drive around with a box of bullets in my car for a week without realizing it. He gets pulled over.
“I have the legal right to own marijuana,” Dante argues to the cop, truthfully. “You can see my handicapped-parking permit right here.”
“Uh-huh. And your friends, they’re all disabled, too, I assume?”
“I think so, yeah.”
On Jai’s birthday, we go out for tapas in the city. It’s me, her, Dante, my sister Hope, and Dante’s sister, Theo, who is visiting from New York. At the end of the night, Jai thanks us and says it was one of her best birthdays yet. She says, “I love you guys!” which I think I’ve never heard from her before. I say, “We love you too-oo,” in a way that accidentally comes out sounding, to me, insincere or grudging. She doesn’t hear me, though, because she is talking to Chance: “But not as much as I love yoooooou!”
“Did you just say you love the dog more than us?” Dante says.
“Yeah, that’s what I said! Some people are listening. It’s like with the kids in the art class, you just talk, and some of them hear you over themselves, and some of them don’t.”
“I told you about my near-death experience, right?” Jai asks one me one night over pinot grigio and pork chops. I haven’t.
“Back when I was living in Woodstock, in my early twenties, doing nothing with my life, basically babysitting these guys from Harvey Brooks and the Fabulous Rhinestones, I got into a car accident. I remember it was dark and before I came to, I made this choice. Something asked me if I wanted to keep living or not, and I said, ‘Okay, I think I’ve still got more work to do.’ It was just like that: an option. There was something good and warm on the other side, and I didn’t want it.”
One day she asks me to move my car from the driveway so Dante can take the trash out from the backyard. It’s raining. This one receptacle, the gray one for landfill trash, is not budging for some reason, something wrong with one of the wheels, and Jai comes out to help him. She in her black hoodie, he in gym shorts, both fairly skeletal, pushing through the merciless rain with all their mutual strength this resolute object, this big unthinking gray thing everyone has to have, and I think I’d like to go back and try to re-do some of those caricatures, ca-ric-atures, try to get them right this time.
Nate Waggoner‘s work has been published in Barrelhouse, the Columbia Journal, The New York Observer, Paste, The Hard Times, and “Loose Lips: Fanfiction Parodies of Great (and Terrible) Literature from the Smutty Stage of Shipwreck,” an anthology published by Hachette. He lives in Brooklyn.