Thursday, November 11, 2010

Try

They sit looking out on the Port Arthur Canal. They sit transfixed in the front seat of the ’56 Chevy pickup he borrowed from a teammate. They don’t talk, they stare to the horizon. They drink cans of Lone Star Beer, tossing the empties out the open windows. They listen to Connie Francis sing "Everybody's Somebody's Fool." They sit quietly, as silent as the smooth surface of the glassy water before them. The glass cracks.

“I just don’t understand how you can treat me so mean in front of everybody.” Janis was upset, hurt, her eyes welling up. But she wouldn’t cry. “I was just minding my own business in history class and you started to give me a pretty rough time. It’s irritating, you know?”

Jimmy turned to face her. She wasn’t pretty, well, not in the way most Texas girls were pretty with blonde bouffants and shapely builds. Janis was kinda funny looking – big nose, small teeth, wild hair. But he loved her for that. She was different, a challenge. He got that same joly of excitement being with her that he got lining up against Port Neches in a big game.


“Janis, I told you why. People wouldn’t understand us, so it’s just better to pretend we don’t like each other, pretend I think you’re weird.”

“But baby, it really hurts when you torture me. And what does ‘Beat Weeds’ even mean? It sounds awful.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Janis Lyn, it just came out. I’m sorry.” He really was, but he was torn between his feelings for Janis and his status as the best football player at Thomas Jefferson High School, an All-State lineman. He gave her a hard time during the day, always laughed and joined in when his pals would harass her as she walked down the hallway, strutting her stuff in black leotards. She was something else, that was for sure, and it’s what drew him to her.

And she knew he was sorry. Just like he was sorry when he didn’t ask her to go the prom. She ended up home, alone, a recluse listening to her Bessie Smith and Leadbelly records, feeling awfully sorry for herself. Reaching out to touch the childhood scars visible under his crew cut, Janis felt a surge of warmth.

“Oh, Jimmy, you’re a sweet little boy. It’s just this town, man. I hate Port Arthur. I’m outta here after graduation. I got no friends, maybe a few people I’ll remember, probably not their names, though. I just want to go where there’s a little understanding, you know, a little more kindness. I want to be liked, even a little, not laughed at, you know?”

Swallowing hard, Jimmy realized this was the moment. He’d been hatching a plan, not sure if Janis would go for it and scared to ask. But now was the time. He grabbed her hands and leaned closer.

“Janis, honey, what would you think of coming with me to Arkansas? It’s a great school, and you can paint, write poetry, sing your folk songs. A college town has got to be more open minded than here, right? People are kind of afraid of you in Port Arthur.”

“Afraid of me? I don’t know, sugar, I was thinking California, San Francisco maybe.” That was a secret of her own she’d been keeping back.

"What? That’s so far away. I’d never see you again.” Jimmy was stunned, his brain swimming, like after a forearm to the helmet. She wanted to leave him? “I know I tease you too much in public, I know that. But I…I do love you Janis.”

Love? Janis looked back out on to the artificial waterway. Love? I care about him, he’s a good man, yeah, maybe I love him too. She knew that love was hurt, that love was work, that this may be her only chance and she didn’t want to lose it. Maybe Jimmy was confusing love with fear; he’d be lonely in college. She had her own plans to attend Lamar Tech over in Beaumont.

“Are you conning me Jimmy? Do you really love me? ‘Cause if you love me, that’s serious, man.”

“I do, Janis, I really do.”

An image flashed before her mind. She saw a mule pulling a cart. The driver held out a long stick with a carrot dangling from a string. That stupid donkey kept walking and pulling that load, hoping he’d reach the carrot. Was she that dumb animal, and that mule driver her man, holding out something that he’s not prepared to give. But love? Love is hard to find.

“If I go with you, you have to promise you won’t be mean to me, ever. You have to swear that we can go out together and everyone’ll know we’re together. And another thing, I still have to be myself and dress how I want and do what I want. I don’t see myself baking bread and having babies. I’m not ready to settle down. Not yet.”

“Yes, Janis, yes, that’s how I want it too. But I also want you to share in my life, go to football games, and be proud of me.” Janis had never attended a high school game; she felt out of place and terrible when Jimmy ignored her, or worse. Maybe it would be different if he wanted her there.

“Well, I’m not much on sports and I don’t like the violence. It’s better to be nice to people then to beat the hell out of them. But if you want me to go, I will.”

Jimmy smiled and reached out for a kiss. He was happy, happy she’d go with him, happy he’d be able to be with her in the open.

“Will your parents be OK with you following me?” Jimmy wondered.

“My parents? Well, they don’t really get me, you know, but they trust me and support me. They know I’m pretty smart. Did I tell you the doctor told my mom that I’d better straighten up or I’d end up in jail or an insane asylum?” Janis laughed loud, a raspy cackle that most kids in school found scary, but Jimmy loved. He laughed himself. “I’ll have to explain the pros and cons of my decision, but they’ll agree. Maybe you should take me home now so I can talk to them about it.”

Jimmy dropped her off at the curb in front of the small pink house under the trees on 32nd Street. Entering from the garage, Janis looked down and saw “Janis” and “JLJ” etched in concrete. She’d done that years ago to make her mark, to make sure everyone knew Janis Joplin was here. But not wanting to lose her man, she knew that she’d follow Jimmy to college and end up stuck down South, as permanently as her childish scrawl in the hard floor.


Janis Joplin and football legend Jimmy Johnson went to Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, TX, at times ending up in the same class, and graduating together in June 1960. In school, Janis was constantly ridiculed by her classmates for her unique ways. Johnson was a football star, and though he takes credit for tormenting Janis and dubbing her “Beat Weeds,” he has also insinuated that he was sexually involved with her. Both have busts at their old high school celebrating their future fame as rock star and Super Bowl winning football coach.

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