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"Barrel Man," Part 4 

This is the fourth and final part of Dan Arp's story about Leonard, who's been coaxed by his alcoholic mother to leave Pittsburgh -- where he has sexually ambiguous relationship with his dance teacher, Sarah -- and come home to Houston for a rodeo. There, his mother gets badly drunk, and Leonard and his father must take her home.

The previous installment of the story can be found at here.

Two days later, the morning of Leonard's flight back to Pittsburgh, his mother slept at home, only occasionally standing to stumble. Leonard and his father heard the thump from above. They were in a storage closet where Leonard's old boyhood toys laid: a floppy Bugs Bunny, a flattened stuffed pig with its legs splayed across the light-brown carpeting. This is where his mother had been. They had escorted her by tensed wrists up the stairs and to her bed. Now his father was searching for the bottle with hands that appeared to be numb weights.

Leonard sifted through a box of his childhood clothes. He remembered wearing them: the green and white Snoopy, the striped Izods and the corduroys which had swished as he walked. The sound had been a kind of company to him once. The clothes smelled of the box they were in, of dust and the faint sweet scent of boyhood sweat; perhaps he was imagining this. Crumpled like paper at the bottom, were his baby clothes, which he didn't remember, and which had no smell he could detect. One shirt, powder-blue and puffy, featured the word "STAR" in red caps.

"Can I take this box home?" Leonard asked.

"Do what you want," his father said without looking up. They found the bottle behind the box. "Give me that," his father said. There was nothing in his voice; no anger, no weariness. Moments later Leonard heard the liquor trickle down the sink pipe.

Pittsburgh was colder than when he had left it. On the road back from the airport, Leonard blew out a tire. He first called a tow truck, then Sarah. "I'll bet you need a drink." It was the last thing he needed, but he said nothing.

She drove him out to her home, a prefab suburban dwelling in Zelienople. There she poured them each a tall glass of Shiraz. Her hair was red today, a little frizzy from the chemicals. She wore a green corduroy jacket over a pink tank top.

"Tell me all about it."

"It was fine," Leonard said. "She's all better now." He didn't know why he said it. He wasn't protecting his mother but himself somehow.

"Good news," she said, pecking his cheek. "How was the rodeo?"

"Magical. Like David Copperfield." She raised one eyebrow, like she always did when she didn't get his humor.

She put on some music -- Carlos Santana's "Evil Ways" -- and they danced a cha-cha in their socks. Her room was decked out in leopard-print accents, filled with posters from violent Italian films; Giallo, she called them. She'd made him watch one once.

"Put me in peek-a-boo," she said. He knew the move -- they'd learned it two months ago -- but hesitated. It made him think of something that had happened in the ICU waiting room a month before.

There had been a Mexican family there with an obnoxious daughter, no older than eight. She wore black tights and a light dress, traipsing through the somber room like some dying comedy act, shouting her clever joke, "Peek-a-boo, ICU." The mother shushed her often, but to no avail.

Finally Leonard said, "There's a dance move called the peek-a-boo." The girl grew silent, stared up at him with an open mouth. "May I show her?" he asked the parents, who only blinked at him. He stood up, feeling all the eyes in the room were on him: this slight, strange blonde man who'd shut this little girl up, even if only for an instant. But he sensed, too, that they might be wondering if he was a little unhinged. What was he planning? He didn't know himself.

"First, there's the hold," he said. "It's easy." When he touched her, he felt her fragility, felt her back expand and contract rhythmically against her ribs. "It's easy," he said, faking a chuckle. "It's all a game. Dance is all a game."

As he repeated the lesson, he felt her tense muscles relax, saw the parents watching now with more bemusement than suspicion. And he remembered the words, peek-a-boo, remembered being a kid and playing that game under a green blanket. Hiding had been the only thing that had ever given him pleasure as a child. Sometimes he hid so long that he felt unable to move, afraid that if he lifted the blanket, his mother and father would see him in a way they'd never seen him before, more naked than naked, exposed beyond imagining. And those stupid baby-talk words, "peek-a-boo," would greet him like the face of a mask worn only to mock the shame it hid.

And he'd felt ashamed, dancing with a Mexican brat, maybe mistaking her for some younger version of his own mother. As if he had any business dancing at all.

But why, then, were people laughing? And then, after this wave of shame, a strange wave of euphoria, a release. And he remembered why he was addicted to dancing. Because a voice was saying, "Who cares? Just dance, dummy." And Leonard listened, executed the peek-a-boo by pushing the girl away, then pulling her into a spin to his right, stopping her progress by bringing the flat of his hand to her back, coming round the side, and meeting her wary eyes for just a moment before spinning her back out again.

Now he executed it again, perfectly, with Sarah.

He wasn't ashamed, not even when Sarah stopped dancing, pressed her wine-scented lips against Leonard's, and pushed her hand inside his jeans and felt him. He was soft.

He wasn't ashamed. He seized her hand and moved it up to his chest. Santana was singing:

This can't go on,

Lord knows you've got to change...

"I have something to tell you," he whispered. "It's going to piss you off."

It did.

She drove him home in silence. Maybe once she said, "You know, I'm hardly surprised," but Leonard wasn't paying attention. He had his bag between his legs, bulging with old clothes. Let her be angry. He had wasted her time. And he'd wasted his. But the good thing about time was it kept coming. The only thing that upset him was that he'd left his blanket in the trunk of his car.

In his room, he closed the door and the blinds on his bank of windows, which looked down on a silent snow-covered street.

He tore off his summer blanket. He opened his bag, picked out the warm soft clothes and began throwing them over his sheets. A fine dust rose and danced in the slats of light from the street. He had enough to make a small mound with Snoopy on top, wrinkled and winking. It was not enough. He would need everything he could get. Outside, the pilot had said, it was 3 degrees. He opened his drawer and began piling shirts and jeans. He went into his closet and grabbed his sweaters and jackets. He took the coat off his back and added it to the pile. He added the summer blanket, draping it over everything. He laughed at the sight; it resembled a burial mound. Yet when he peeled back the top layer, the clothes lay draped as though filled somehow, the ghosts of dozens of Leonards inside them. He could almost see the twisted legs, arms and torsos.

He climbed in. The blanket felt cold at first but oddly comforting; his skin broke out in goose bumps. He burrowed down. The heaviness of the mound weighed on him, and he felt, for a moment, as though ensnared in a jungle, sleeves and pant legs wrapping around his neck, chest and ankles.

And then he began to warm, explored with his legs the cold spaces where he could spread the warmth, ducked his head beneath the mound as though exploring a space underwater. He forgot to consider that his mother might call, forgot to brace himself tonight, awash in this warmth. The muscles of his body relaxed and he slept.

He slept so deeply he did not hear the phone ring next to his head at 4 in the morning, did not hear his mother's voice until he replayed the message the next day before work. "Leonard? Leonard?" Then silence.

That night he disconnected the machine, turned the ringer off on his phone. He knelt beside the bed he'd never shared and clasped his hands together tightly, as if to hold all the warmth he could find between them.

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  • Barrel Man, Part 3

    This is the third part of Dan Arp's four-part story about Leonard, who's been coaxed by his alcoholic mother to leave Pittsburgh and come home to Houston -- where she has led him on a booze-fueled shopping excursion before bringing him to a rodeo.
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