"Barrel Man," Part 2 | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

This is the second part of Dan Arp's four-part story about Leonard, whose troubled mother has urged him to leave Pittsburgh, where he's in a sexually ambivalent relationship with his dance teacher, Sarah, to come home to Houston -- all so he can attend a rodeo with his estranged parents. The first installment of the story can be found online here.

Leonard brought the phone to his ear, heard the tone buzzing, and dialed.

He got an answering machine. "This is Sarah. I'm out drinking or dancing or doing the Internet thing." Before he could leave a message, she picked up. "I was in the shower. I'm sopping wet."

When he told her the news, over a grilled portabella mushroom sandwich he didn't touch, Sarah hardly flinched. Leonard was surprised, more so to realize it had been the reaction he was hoping for. "So you go home," she said. "Big deal, it's a weekend."

"She wants to go to the rodeo," Leonard said. "My mother doesn't know the first thing about rodeos. It's like a dog wanting to learn algebra. It's shocking."

She poured herself a tall cup of wine. "What's the big deal?" she said. She didn't look at him; she looked bored. "My mother's kind of messed up too. You get over it."

"What's wrong with her?" he said. She didn't answer him, another surprise.

Typically, their dates were purges, full of confessional energy. He waited for her to finish her stories, of a former South Carolinian boyfriend who dumped her to become a minister for the church of Jerry Falwell, of tragic self-destructive revenge against spurning lovers in the beds of strangers. Then, when he was certain she had finished -- when she had turned her attention back to her now-cold sake -- Leonard floated a few choice words of regret and self-recrimination over his dying mother, and the two held hands and hugged across plates of tuna maki.

Once, to his alarm and warm delight, she had drunkenly kissed his palm, rubbed her cheek against the backs of his fingers. This was when Leonard had known to get the check. And that night, after a few shots of bourbon, they had danced together like children first learning to dance, and had fallen asleep without making love.

He had never been in bed with a man; now he'd spent the night with a woman. That was last weekend, when he woke up next to her with a hangover and left without waking her up. Maybe the closeness of Sarah as he awoke or the scent of her breath or his own on that sweaty couch had made him afraid, repulsed. Somehow -- and he knew he could never bring himself to tell his therapist this -- it all reminded him of his mother.

Sarah looked across the little wooden table to his plate, grease congealing on the flesh of his portabella. "You haven't touched it."

"I'm not hungry," he said.

She shook her head. "You're so frickin' high maintenance." She chuckled, Leonard thought to take the edge off her words.

Then her voice took on a sterner tone, the same tone of impatience he'd noted -- hated -- when he wasn't getting a dance step. "I think I know what's really going on." She took a swig of wine.

Leonard didn't want to look at her. He looked out the window at Liberty Avenue, at the icicles dripping water off the awnings of shop fronts, at the old women shuffling to the bus stop. You don't know me, he wanted to say. His jaw was set; he imagined his face was angry. But instead of taking the bait, she softened and said, "Let's get out of here and go dancing."

"Not a club," he said. "I'm broke."

"Fine, chez Sarah. Plenty of booze, good music and smokes. And me. What more could a single boy ask for?"

Leonard didn't answer, or even look at her. He was thinking of his blanket. He was thinking of sex, of manly things, things like rodeos. He was thinking of the plane ticket he'd have to buy. His mind was made up. There was nothing for him here in Pittsburgh, this dying city.

"I can't be out late," he said. "I've got errands tomorrow. I need a blanket."

"Then don't come," she said.

He didn't. The next day, he bought the ticket. And a week later, he drove out to Robinson Towne Center, bought a thick green blanket, crammed it into the hatchback of his Mustang, and hurried to the airport.

Houston was hot and bright, a sea of shimmering concrete and asphalt. His mother looked tired, a little fat, which shocked him; she'd always been vain about her weight. And her hair, once dyed black, was growing out gray now, the line of demarcation at the level of her eyelids. In the car, though she was driving, she held him close. Leonard smelled her acrid perfume. She lingered over the hug like it was a sentence she'd been practicing to say, but she didn't speak until Leonard had come disentangled.

"You look nice. Like my boy."

Leonard nodded and looked out the window, out across the flat concrete landscape of Houston, at the criss-cross of overpasses that awaited them.

"The rodeo, huh?" He mumbled it, so she didn't hear him. She put the car into drive. And Leonard kept his gaze fixed out the window, repulsed as by a magnet.

"Things'll be better now, I promise."

Leonard didn't move, felt his throat dry up as he cleared it and nodded. "I know it," he said, feeling like the words had been forced out of him.

They went first to the mall, The Galleria, which was actually a mammoth complex of malls connected by underground walkways. Leonard's mom said she needed makeup. "And we can get you that blanket."

"I've already got one," he said. "But let's go. I can buy some chaps for the rodeo." She didn't catch, or didn't acknowledge, his joke.

The mall had gained a new wing since Leonard last visited: Galleria IV. It was all getting out of control, just like the city. Long ago, his mother had led him through the maze of these shops deftly. He had held onto her beige leather purse and gawked at the orgy of lights and giggling mall rats. None of it had fazed her. She was always on a mission. And that, if nothing else, had not changed. He had to make long, quick strides to keep up while she made a beeline for Saks. "Do you want a drink at the bar?"

The words cut into him, and this time he tried to catch her eyes, but she was a few steps ahead of him, surveying the human traffic in the high, echoing strip of shops. "Do you?" he said, to the back of her head.

"I'm not going to go all nutty," she said, darting her glance back down at his shoes. "You're making me mad. I can't have a drink to relax before we meet your father?"

"I didn't say that," Leonard said.

At Saks, she had three whiskeys -- the bartender gave Leonard a pitying, worried look when she slurred her request for the bill -- then dragged Leonard down to the cosmetics counter, where a heavily painted woman with a Slavic accent applied thick layers of foundation, rouge and eye shadow to his mother's wrinkled face. When it was finished, she looked at Leonard. "What do you think?"

She looked a wreck. The foundation was thick as grease paint; the rouge gave her cheeks an unnatural blush. And the eye shadow had a faint green tint that made Leonard queasy. "You look fine," he said.

She turned to the saleswoman. "OK. I'll take it all." She charged the whole thing, grabbed Leonard with her free hand. "Today's been a good day."

At one point, on their way back to the car, Leonard excused himself to the restroom and placed a call to his father. "I'm on my way to the Astrodome," his father said.

"She's all gussied up for you," Leonard said.

His father sighed. "This is a mistake. You're making a mistake. I know you're only trying to help, but ..."

"But you'll be there," Leonard said.

"But I'll be there."

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