JP Kemmick works as a middle school English teacher in Seattle. He has an MFA from the University of Montana and past work in Beechers, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. He is at work on a story collection and a novel.
The mice are in the basement, caged and pegged for the belly of a snake.
The uniformly large-bellied uncles are in the living room, watching college football. The young cousins, all six of them, are rolling from the belly of one uncle to the belly of the next. Nearly all the uncles hail from Texas. For the past several days, they have been ingesting alarming quantities of barbecue. They joke about sprouting wings, they have eaten so many themselves. The cousins grow dizzy and drape themselves over the bellies. The uncles lurch at a fumbled pass and recline at its safe recovery. The cousins ride the bellies like waves.
The aunts sit on the patio with their iced teas. They ash their cigarettes on saucers. They gossip. The sweet smell of the smoker, on since 7 a.m., full of brisket and chicken, mixes with the cigarettes and sticks to the aunts. The dogs, Mitch and Bitch, moan and whimper and sniff the air.
Greg buries his hands in Angela’s hair and rests his chin atop her head, as though trying to keep her perfectly still. Angela, wide-eyed, takes it all in.
A block away, Leroy steps aboard a bus. Escaping. He’s nineteen but still living at home, and home has been overtaken by family come for his brother, Greg’s, wedding. They started showing up earlier this week, like a conquering army, setting up RVs in the driveway, tents in the yard, leaving explosions of clothes, beer cans, and paper plates in their wake, not to mention deep dank scents of rotten meat and beans in the bathrooms. On the internet, Leroy goes by the handle SnakeCharmer6. To his aunts, much to his chagrin, he still goes by his childhood nickname, Lemonhead. Something about a lemonade stand gone wrong, it’s never been entirely clear.
Leroy hates riding the bus. Already, as he takes his seat, he sees a man pick his nose and wipe it inside his own pocket. At the back of the bus another man is loudly debating his prospects with the “finer sex” to whomever might listen. The bus bounces and jerks. Its travelers sway and stumble and cling.
Leroy’s friend Jimmy is going to sell him a car soon. Leroy just needs a little more cash to make it happen. Luckily, his small business venture is on the verge of taking off. His business is mice, any which way you, and your snake, need them: pinkies, fuzzies, hoppers, frozen or alive. Leroy is on his way to Pineapple Petz, to sell some product to the store’s owner, Lucius. Plus Leroy’s mom said she’d be needing the freezer space soon for a piece of wedding cake.
Leroy doesn’t much like to be out and about at all. People are dumb, is his general diagnosis. But now with the wedding, all the people are in his home, and even worse, they’re family. Not to mention Greg’s fiancé, Angela, who is still, despite Leroy’s endless pondering, a total mystery. And she’s a soft speaker too, which, in Leroy’s family, is akin to Loch Ness status, some rare creature, seldom, if ever, encountered. He would like to know her better though, he really would. He would like to understand women in general better, but he has a hard time conjuring a scenario in which he and a woman might engage in conversation, and that seems like a prerequisite for the understanding.
Greg, on the other hand, never seemed to have much trouble with women. Near the end of high school, Greg brought so many girls home Leroy gave up keeping them apart. After Leroy had a late night kitchen encounter with a blonde girl named Mindy or Mandy or Meghan, he started wearing pants at all times. This was after their father died, when the house became a quieter safer space. Greg revelled in the freedom. Leroy doubled down on the quiet and safety.
But before that, when their father was still kicking and screaming, Greg took care of Leroy, wore out a cassette of Metallica’s Greatest Live Hits while they played endless games of Uno in Leroy’s bedroom waiting for their father to exhaust himself, wondering if it was the kind of night he might remember them. The crunching guitars getting progressively more warbly as their father drank himself closer and closer to the grave. When their mother told Leroy that Greg was feeling homesick his first semester at college, Leroy mailed him an Uno deck.
On the bus, Leroy can feel the mice thawing. The paper bag is getting soggy on his lap. He opens it and takes out one of the Ziploc bags to inspect its contents. The mice get freezer burned and chewy if they’re refrozen and Lucius is picky about the mice he sells.
“Oh no,” a woman across from Leroy says. “You are not pulling dead mice out of that bag.” The woman is fake tanned, with long, gleaming, pink fingernails, her hair looping in curls down her back.
“This boy back here is carrying dead mice,” the woman yells to the driver, who ignores her. “What kinda crazy-ass people y’all letting ride the bus anymore?”
“They’re for snakes,” Leroy says.
“You carrying snakes on my bus, too?” the woman says.
An older woman a few rows up, curled tightly over a grocery bag, turns and says, “I’m sorry, I have ophidiophobia. It’s hereditary.”
“Opidofia?” the tanned woman says.
“Fear of snakes,” Leroy says. “I don’t have any snakes.”
“My mother and both my sisters have it,” the old woman says.
“Boy, you need to get your snakes and mice off my bus,” the tanned woman says.
“You better listen to the woman,” the man from the back of the bus says. “Learn to respect the finer sex.”
The bus stops to let someone on and Leroy gets off.
“This is bullshit,” he says to the woman.
“Creepy-ass motherfucker,” the woman says.
Leroy is miles away from Pineapple Petz. He starts walking.
. . .
“Leroy!” says Lucius, looking over purple-tinted glasses resting low on his nose. A little orange snake is wrapped around his wrist and it raises its head to flick its tongue at Leroy. “You got some mice for me?”
“You know it.”
Lucius pets the little snake’s head and it calms back down.
“I can take these ones,” he says, brushing his long hair from his eyes, “but then I’m probably good for the month.”
“I know, man, I’m sorry. My best snake guy moved to Florida. And it’s the end of the summer. Everybody buys snakes at the beginning of the summer, when it’s hot out and they’re feeling like they could use a tropical animal in the home. But they take shitty care of them, keep it too hot, too cold, the snake dies, you know how it goes.”
“I need the money, man. I’m trying to set up a little something for myself.”
“Wish I could just front you the money, but I got into this business because I’m passionate about tropical animals, not because I ever expected to make boatloads of cash.”
Leroy looks down the aisle of fish tanks, at all the wavering blue light. It makes him a little dizzy.
“You got siblings, Lucius?”
“I’ve got a sister in North Carolina. Does landscape shit, for rich people.”
“She drive you fucking crazy?”
“Nah, I love my sister. Drives me crazy she makes more money than I do telling people where to put a bush, but she’s pretty cool.”
Leroy sets the bag on the counter.
“Twenty in there. Probably need to get in the freezer right away.”
Lucius pops open the register and hands Leroy some cash.
“The snakes of Spokane thank you,” he says.
. . .
Leroy walks up the alley behind his house and opens the backyard gate. The air is thick, hazy, and sticky. Up on the patio, his aunt Bella has been convinced to do her barking seal impression. The dogs return the salutation. The cousins cheer. Leroy seriously considers stepping back out into the alley. Instead, he makes a beeline for the basement door.
As he nears the door, he sees his little cousin Mary lying down on the trampoline, pointing at the sky and talking quietly to herself.
“You working on black sheep status?” Leroy says, leaning on the springs at the trampoline’s edge. “Need any pointers?”
“I’m finding constellations.”
“Which are made out of stars. At night.”
“There’s one right there,” Mary says.
“Yeah? What’s it look like?”
“A horse named Willow.”
“Sure it’s not just a cloud?”
“It’s a constellation cloud.”
“Takes one to know one,” Leroy says and pushes off the trampoline.
He goes in the basement side door to check on his mice. As a consequence of housing Leroy’s small business venture, the basement smells like shit and sawdust. In their cages the mice make a noise like scurry scurry scurry. In the corner aquarium is Herm the Werm, Leroy’s ball python, the original impetus for the raising of the mice, before Leroy got serious and learned a thing or two about spreadsheets. The basement setup is only temporary. Leroy’s working out the details for his own retail space, next to the laser tag arena, where he could keep double the cages he’s got in the basement, with room for possible expansion into reptiles.
Herm watches the mice in their cages and the mice scurry scurry scurry to get away from Herm. Leroy thinks it’s more humane this way, that the mice have a sense from birth as to why they were brought into this world. These days, Herm only eats a fraction of the mice, but Leroy’s cultivated all kinds of snake-enthusiast connections around Spokane, plus Pineapple Petz. He’s got a lead on a guy in Ritzville with a serious snake collection too. Once Jimmy sells him that car, he can deliver to buyers all over Eastern Washington.
He cracks open one of the windows. He’d had them all open, but his mother told him the smell was getting to everyone up on the patio. He checks on a mating cage where one male mouse sniffs around three females.
“Get some you little horn dog,” Leroy says. The females are all seven months old, near the end of their reproductive use. Soon, Leroy will kill them, bag them, and send them off as snake food. Such is life.
. . .
Overwhelmed by the smell of mouse shit and barbecue, Leroy eventually heads upstairs. At the kitchen table, Greg and Angela are gluing popsicle sticks to wedding programs. Leroy sits at the counter, eating potato chips and pretending to read a magazine while staring at Angela. He keeps thinking that at some point this weekend he will crack the code, that the essence of Angela will come flooding out. Not since Lacey Barker in the seventh grade, with her perfectly cascading bangs and too short skirts, has Leroy dedicated this much time to understanding a woman. Greg could at least acknowledge his effort.
Leroy stares long enough that he can tell Angela has noticed and is becoming uncomfortable, hoping Greg will look up from his exacting glue work and intervene.
Leroy is trying to make sense of it is all. He had a teacher once who called him a “curious soul” and she was right. Right now he’s curious about the sadness in Angela’s eyes, and why she’s always so gentle with everybody. Seems to Leroy somebody might have sort of beat her into submission. Now, giving it some deeper consideration, Leroy realizes she looks a little like his mother, Sally, with her worried eyes and the nervous energy hunching her shoulders.
“So, Angela,” he says, “what’s your damage? Pederast father? Dead twin? Mom who didn’t love you enough?”
“What the fuck, Leroy?” Greg says. Greg holds one of the program-fans as if he might smack Leroy with it. He has a glob of rubber cement on his elbow.
“Is that jizz on your elbow?” Leroy says.
“Get the fuck out,” Greg says.
“We’ve all got our damage.”
“That’s rude,” Angela says softly. She sounds a little exasperated.
“Go play with the goddamn dogs,” Greg says.
Leroy gets up and walks toward the patio. He likes playing with the dogs.
. . .
Uncle Bill is dangling bacon in front of Mitch and Bitch. Leroy is no match for bacon. He calls to the dogs, but they pay him no mind. The betrayal stings. After Bitch showed up in the yard last year, young and spry, allowing the older Mitch free reign of her backside, Leroy had lain down in front of his mother’s car to keep her from taking Bitch to the pound. One of their neighbors came running over, like Sally didn’t know Leroy was there. Leroy and his mom both thought that was pretty funny. Bitch got to stay. And this is the thanks Leroy gets.
“Mitch and Bitch, Bitch and Mitch,” Uncle Bill says in sync with the lowering and raising of the bacon. The twin snouts rise and fall and salivate.
Sally is talking to her sister, Lucinda. Lucinda wears her hair like a house wears a tornado. Sally motions for Leroy to come and sit next to her. “Lemonhead!” Lucinda says. Leroy retreats back to the basement.
. . .
Leroy made a sign before all the family arrived and put it on the door leading to the basement from the upstairs hallway. this door to remain closed at all times, it says. Now he finds the sign, in front of the open door, on the floor.
“Fucking shit,” he says. He gets duct tape and expends a quarter of a roll taping the sign to the outside of the door.
Down in the basement, he sits in front of his cages, which calms him.
“Smart bastards,” he says to his mice. “You fuck and then you die.”
He reaches into one of the cages and grabs a mouse out by its tail. It wriggles in front of his face, its big pink ears twitching, its little black eyes darting around. Leroy snaps his teeth at it, one quick chomp, to remind it who’s boss.
“Weird boy mouse eater.” Leroy looks down just in time to see Mary’s face disappear from one of the windows.
“Weird girl,” he yells back.
Then he hears someone coming down the stairs and turns to see Greg on the last step.
“Holy shit it smells like ass down here.”
“Try sleeping down here,” Leroy says and nods toward his sleeping bag balled up on the couch.
“Sorry we jacked your room.”
Last Christmas, Leroy and his mom visited Greg and Angela in Ellensburg. Before the visit, Leroy’d thought it couldn’t get all that much worse than Spokane. He figured Greg would come home after he graduated this June, but last night, when Angela was talking to one of the aunts, Leroy heard her say they were looking at buying a house in Ellensburg.
“Whatever,” Leroy says, “it was your room first. I was just squatting. At least the bed is finally seeing some action.”
“You’d think, but, man, this wedding shit is exhausting.”
“You’re not even boning?”
“Sorry to disappoint you.”
“I thought that was the whole point.”
“Yeah, you would.” Greg drums his fingers on the doorframe.
“You come down here just to talk about your sex life?” Leroy says.
“Okay, yeah, look, dude,” Greg says. “You’re my brother, and I love you, but you’ve gotta knock it off with being a little bitch to Angela. I need you to be cool, okay?”
“Says Mr. Cool Kat himself.”
“For just one more day.”
“That was Kat with a ‘K’ by the way.”
“I told Angela you’d be cool.”
“And I’d hate to disappoint her.”
Greg shakes his head and presses his hands against each side of the doorframe. They used to play a game as kids where they pressed their hands against the doorframe as hard as they could then let their arms fall to their sides until some mysterious force caused them to rise back up. The first time Greg made Leroy do it, Greg raised his arms in tandem with Leroy’s, as if he were in control of Leroy’s body. It freaked Leroy the fuck out.
“So why’s she so sad-looking all the time, anyway?” Leroy says.
“She’s not. You just don’t know her very well.”
“She looks sad.”
Greg pauses a moment, then says, “Look, don’t say anything about it to her…”
“Here comes the juice.”
“Her parents were pretty big fuck-tards. Christian fuck-tards. They did all kinds of messed up shit. In God’s name.”
“Dad did the same thing to us, minus the God part.”
“Is that what’s going on?” Greg says. “You dealing with some weird pent-up emotions about Dad or something?”
“What do you think he’d have to say about Angela?”
“He’d probably say something about her tits. In front of other people. Something to reaffirm to the world he was an asshole.”
“I don’t think he’d like her.”
“He didn’t like much.”
“But I mean, I think he just wouldn’t like her. Like, her personality.”
“Like I give a fuck what he would think.”
“He was our dad.”
“Don’t think you have to defend him. Or fill in for him.”
“I’m not. I have nothing against Angela. I was just trying to get to know her better. I mean, you’re marrying her and she’s still basically a stranger to me.”
“Then try and engage her in rational adult conversation. She wants to like you. She really does.”
“Okay, I get it, I’m difficult. I’m sorry I’m not as awesomely mature as you.”
“Okay, fuck you. I don’t know why you’re being like this.”
“Thanks for coming down.”
Greg turns and heads back up the stairs.
“I’m not going to do this,” he says. “Have fun with your fucking rats.”
“Mice,” Leroy yells after him. “And I’m fulfilling market demand.”
Through the basement side door, Leroy sees his cousins Frankie and Lucy jumping on the trampoline, their heads pointed at the sky, their arms tight to their sides, vying for the greater elevation. On the kitchen fridge, there’s a picture of Frankie in his Christmas pajamas holding a pellet gun pointed straight at the camera.
Leroy steps outside and ducks under the trampoline, then yells that one of them has jumped on his nose, that it is definitely broken. His mother used to tell him that both he and his father had more going on inside than they knew what to do with.
“You broke my fucking nose.” Leroy holds his hand up to his face and screams in agony. Lucy freezes for an instant, then jumps off the trampoline crying and runs toward the patio. Leroy looks up at Frankie who is looking down at him through the mesh. Leroy can tell his cousin is scared and he feels a little bad. He knows Frankie’s dad lays into him. Their dads were brothers, after all.
“I’m just messing,” Leroy says.
“I knew you were faking,” Frankie says. He’s wearing a button-down dress shirt with a dragon print climbing the side.
“Bullshit, you were scared shitless,” Leroy says, crawling out from under the trampoline.
Lucy comes back cradled in Sally’s arms.
“See,” Sally says. “I told you he was just joking.”
“It wasn’t a funny joke,” Lucy says. Leroy sees Angela glance down from the living room window.
“No, it wasn’t was it?” She sets Lucy down then says to Leroy, “A word, please?”
They walk over to the garden beds, where Sally has so far cultivated mostly weeds. One of the dogs has taken a recent shit on the rhubarb plant.
“You could be handling things better,” Sally says.
“I’m a curious soul.”
“Knock it off. You’re nearly twenty years old. You need to start acting like it.”
Up on the patio, Leroy sees Uncle Chas pull his shirt up and play the drums on his fat belly.
“You want me to get married?” Leroy says. “Because I saw this girl on the street the other day—”
“You could start by being respectful of your brother and Angela.”
“For the record, I think it’s a terrible idea for Greg to get married at twenty-two. He’s gonna turn into an alcy like Dad when he hits twenty-five, and then what will Angela do? Stuck in a shitty relationship, one or two kids down the line, while Greg knocks her around and the kids cry under the–”
His mother slaps Leroy.
“Jesus, I wasn’t talking about us,” he says, holding his cheek.
“I have earned this day,” Sally says, gritting her teeth. There are tears in her eyes. “After everything, just let me have this one thing. Let your brother have his happiness. Shut off the part of your brain that wants everyone to be miserable, and try to be a halfway decent human being.”
“I’m trying to be. Nobody ever talks about this shit. They think it will just go away. It’s hereditary, it doesn’t just disappear. I know about this shit. I deal with genetics every day with my mice.”
“We’re not all doomed to repeat history, Leroy.”
She grips his shoulder then walks back toward the patio.
“Busted,” Frankie calls out from mid-air. Leroy flips him off.
. . .
Leroy re-enters the basement to discover Mitch and Bitch trying to stomp or eat the scurrying mice they have loosed from overturned cages.
“You fucking mutts,” Leroy yells. He tackles Mitch, gets both his arms around his middle and throws him out the door and into the backyard, where he lands with a yelp. Bitch, tending to go where Mitch goes, speedily follows and Leroy slams the door shut behind them.
Mice, everywhere. Leroy lunges after them, scooping them up or grabbing at their tails. They hide underneath pillows and behind the couch. Herm darts at the aquarium’s sides as they scurry scurry scurry past. Leroy gathers as many as he can, which is not nearly enough, and deposits them back in their righted cages. He then marches upstairs, closing the door behind him.
He finds Greg in the living room, lying on the couch with Angela, fanning her with a program. Her eyes are closed and she’s smiling. The TV is on and one of the uncles is flipping through the channels and eating carrot sticks dipped in barbecue sauce.
“Can you not fucking read?” Leroy says.
“What?” Greg says.
“The sign on the basement door. You were the last one down there. It says to keep the door closed and you fucking left it open.”
“And Mitch and Bitch got into my mice.”
“That’s my business. I don’t go to where you work and fuck your shit up.”
“I work in a dentist’s office, not my mom’s basement.”
“I’m on the cusp of my own retail location.”
“You should sell hats too.”
“So you could call it ‘Rats ’n Hats.’”
“Mice. For the last fucking time, I raise mice, not rats. I have a growing clientele of reptile owners in the greater Spokane-metro area, as well as steady sales to a locally owned and operated pet store.”
“I think that’s admirable,” Angela says.
“Nobody asked you,” Leroy says. He’s surprised by how angry it comes out.
Greg stands up and gets into Leroy’s face. He’s taller than Leroy by about an inch, but Leroy is in flip-flops, and Greg is wearing shoes and also leaning forward on the balls of his feet.
“I’m getting married tomorrow,” he says. “So I don’t have the time or the energy to kick your ass. What I need from you is total and utter silence until two days from now, when Angela and I are gone, and you can go back to your sad miserable little existence playing with rats in the basement. I am serious about this. Shut the fuck up.”
The uncle watching TV lets out an airy appreciative whistle.
. . .
The family feasts. The barbecue sauce flows like a river over plates, napkins, chins. Mitch and Bitch circle and howl. The best man is present, along with two bridesmaids and Angela’s sister. A country station is turned up loud. The cousins play crack the egg on the trampoline and come crying to the patio upon the occasional rough cracking.
Leroy sits in a wicker chair on the edge of it all, trying to stay out of trouble. He eyes the best man, a college friend of Greg’s. Leroy didn’t want to be best man anyway. He’s already Greg’s brother, and that’s plenty. Angela’s sister has the same sad eyes as Angela, on a fatter face. One of the bridesmaids has the kind of cheeks Leroy likes. He’s trying to figure out a way to talk to her that wouldn’t get him in trouble when his uncle Hank comes waltzing over, carrying a hunk of meat on a fork, a neat trail of barbecue sauce down his shirtfront. Hank is Leroy’s dad’s brother. Leroy had put in a vote not to invite his dad’s side at all, on account of hating them, but nobody ever listens to him. Hank has an O’Doul’s in his other hand. He managed to kick the habit before it killed him, unlike Leroy’s dad.
“Some people thought your brother was a queer, you know,” Hank says, “cause he was a little over emotional as a kid, but I slipped him a Hustler when he was about thirteen, and I could see the look in his eye, said he liked titties.”
“That’s nice,” Leroy says.
“So what about you?”
“Listen, Greg told me I’m not supposed to talk until after the wedding.”
Leroy looks past Hank at Greg, who’s been cornered by Hank’s wife, Brenda, who’s waving her hamburger around like a frisbee. Greg is smiling even though Leroy knows for a fact he hates Brenda. Greg has always been a better faker.
“Family of loud mouths,” Hank says.
Leroy shrugs and pretends to zipper his mouth shut. Hank laughs awkwardly then wades back into the family melee.
Brenda has managed to separate Greg from Angela, and Angela is standing off to the side talking to her bridesmaids. Then Sally swoops in and whispers something to Angela and the two of them sneak into the house.
Through the window, Leroy watches Sally and Angela duck into Sally’s bedroom. Leroy has to pee so he weaves his way to the patio door and down the hallway. But as he passes his mother’s bedroom, he pauses. He can hear her rustling in the closet then sitting down on the bed.
“I was six months pregnant with Greg,” Sally says. It sounds like she’s flipping pages. “We were supposed to get married four months before that, but Greg’s father had some last minute business scheme he had to see to in Texas. He told me I looked like I was ready to go bowling on my wedding day. By which I guess he meant I looked fat. He was never very funny.”
“I think you look radiant,” Angela says.
“I think I look six months pregnant,” Sally says as she turns the page. “And then, presto magic, there’s little Gregory.”
“Oh my god, he’s such a little cutie. Look at him on his daddy’s lap.”
Leroy has never seen any of these photos. It’s difficult to imagine the picture his mother is looking at. Theirs was not a photo album family. Years ago there was a family portrait hanging in the living room, the only one ever taken, but after Leroy’s father died, it disappeared, leaving a conspicuous white rectangle on the wall, the only physical marker of what was otherwise a fairly successful effort at banishing the man’s memory.
“You know,” Sally says quietly, “the boys’ father was not a good man. He was an alcoholic and abusive.”
“I know,” Angela says.
“But if I can take credit for one thing in this world, it’s that I raised my boys to know better. To treat a woman like a real man should, with respect and with love.”
“You did a fine job.”
“But I also wanted to say, there’s bigger forces at work here. Their father wasn’t like that when I married him. He built me that beautiful dresser over there. So you tell me if Greg starts taking a liking to drink, or if he even so much as raises his voice at you.”
Leroy’s had this suspicion for a long while, that he’s the only one willing to say certain things out loud. Why do people always feel like they have to hide? Leroy is out in the open, and proud of it. He feels equal parts vindication and frustration. He’s smarter than people give him credit for. The thing about being a loner is that you see stuff other people miss. But if his mom sees it too, why won’t she talk to him about it? Like she’s pushing him away because he knows what she knows.
“Thank you, Sally,” Angela says, “but I’m really not worried.”
“Me neither, but I just wanted you to know, I’m always here if you need anything.” Leroy hears another page turn then his mother says, “And then little Leroy came on the scene.”
“He’s so tiny.”
“He was a preemie. Fists the size of grapes.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“What do I have to do to get Leroy to like me? He’s got a bone to pick with me, and I don’t know why.”
There’s a pause and Leroy can hear his mother fluffing a pillow, which is something she does when she’s nervous. Greg used to joke that she kept a dozen pillows in the living room just so she’d have something to do with her hands. Leroy sometimes wondered, finding fist-shaped dents in the morning, if it wasn’t to give his father an alternative target.
“Leroy gets confused sometimes. That’s all. I think he’s at a confused place in his life. Not knowing what to do next, playing in the basement with those mice. He loves Greg, you know, more than he’d ever say directly. And now you love Greg too, and I think maybe he’s having a hard time sharing.”
He’s not playing with his fucking mice. He’s creating a viable long-term business plan with room for differentiated market growth. But also, yes, he loves Greg. Isn’t that obvious? Why else would he be trying so hard to make sure Angela is right for him? Leroy is, at his core, a lover not a fighter.
But now, he can feel his frustration welling up. When Leroy had something to ask Angela, he asked her. Straight up, honestly. But this, what Leroy is listening to, behind closed doors, is bullshit. Leroy is tired of people trying to diagnose him without his consent. His teachers and classmates, his father, and now, right here, his own mother, trying to explain to this stranger what makes him tick.
“I just wish there was some way to tell him we’re on the same team,” Angela says.
“You have to be patient with Leroy. I know from experience. But you’ve gotta be stern too, and not let him take advantage of you.”
On the other side of the door, Leroy sits down and takes off his shoes. They want to see confused? He puts the shoes on his hands then stands up and rears back as if to knock on the door. He’ll waltz on in, shoes on his hands, and ask where he is, how he got here, what’s his name? He’ll drool and try to shake their hands with his feet. Then he’ll inform them both that he’d like to be in on any future conversations about his inner workings.
But just as Leroy is about to bring down his right shoe, his cousin Mary comes running up the hallway. She stops abruptly and stares at him until a big smile spreads across her face. She kicks off her little pink sandals, then slips her small hands into them. She raises them triumphantly then proceeds to walk them along the wall in exaggeratedly plodding steps, taking a long curving path until she finally arrives at the doorframe.
Leroy offers a begrudging smile. Mary, show stealer. He remembers being her age and confused all the damn time. It was its own kind of fun.
“Weird girl,” he whispers.
“Weird boy,” Mary whispers back.
Leroy takes a deep breath and lets his shoes fall to the ground. What good is proving people right anyway?
He knocks gently as Mary begins waltzing her shoes up his leg.
“Angela?” he says. “Greg’s looking for you.”
“Oh, okay, I’ll be right out,” she says.
Leroy opens the door and steps in. He glances down at the photo album on the bed. There’s a picture of his dad cradling Leroy tight against his chest, looking confused as all hell.
“Huh,” Leroy says.
“You sure were a cute little baby,” his mother says.
“What happened?” Leroy says.
Mary thrusts her hand-held shoes around the corner and yells, “Hand feet!”
. . .
In the late evening, as the moon and the clouds wrestle for the night sky, Leroy has a few beers and accidentally gets drunk.
The cousins are asleep on patio chairs or couches, in tents or campers. There seems to be a debate amongst several of the aunts about the location of Orion’s Belt. The uncles are, somehow, still eating. The dogs twitch and kick, their bellies scrap-full and distended.
Sally has strung up old Christmas lights, the first time in roughly a decade. They are dull with dust. The bridesmaids and the sister and the best man have gone home or to hotels. Greg and Angela have disappeared.
Sometimes, in high school, Leroy would find an old stash of his father’s, in the doghouse, or behind the shovels in the shed, and he would drink his fill and fall asleep. He wanted to know what kind of drunk he was. It turned out he was a sleepy drunk, which was good to know. His father was a sleepy drunk too, in the sense that he could only throw so many punches, so many insults, before exhausting himself and passing out.
Sometimes, right before falling asleep, Leroy would cry a little.
In the corner of the yard is an old gnarled walnut tree that Leroy and Greg used as a pirate ship when they were younger. Just last year Leroy found a plastic gold coin in the leaf litter piled in the tree’s center. On particularly windy nights, when maybe things were less than ideal inside the home, they would pretend a storm was blowing in, that the tree was riding the high waves.
Now, tired and drunk, Leroy climbs into the tree. On the patio, one of the uncles makes the sound of a motorcycle revving and everyone laughs.
. . .
Leroy wakes to somebody climbing into the tree. He props himself up on an elbow to find Angela throwing a leg over a branch and quietly landing next to him. There is no more talk rippling out from the house. The sound of a snoring uncle, or aunt, comes from one of the tents. The Christmas lights are still on, burning through the dust.
“Leroy,” Angela says. She’s wearing a pair of baggy sweatpants, a thin shirt, and no bra.
“What’re you doing up here?” Leroy says.
“I was looking for you.”
She takes a step closer, her bare feet rustling the leaves. There’s a full moon behind her. She bends down and Leroy can see her breasts beneath her shirt. Her breath smells like strawberries and vodka.
“I was thinking about what you said earlier,” she says, “about my damage.” She gets close enough to whisper right into Leroy’s ear. He can feel the beginning stages of a hard-on.
“I’m so fucked up,” Angela says. “Deep, deep damage.”
“I was just fucking around,” Leroy says, “when I said that.” He puts his hand behind himself as he leans away from Angela. He can feel something wet in the leaves. “I’ve been told I’m a curious soul.”
“Leroy, I just want you to know something.”
“Yeah.” She stands up and grabs onto an overhead branch so a sliver of her belly glows in the moonlight. Leroy can’t tell if she’s swaying or he is. Then she hisses, “If you fuck up my wedding day, I will personally castrate you. I am serious about this.” The branch creaks under her pull. “Very, very serious. I will have your balls in my hand, and I will take a knife and separate them from your body.”
She stands there a moment more, holding onto the overhead branch like she might bring it down on both of them, then turns and climbs back down the tree.
When she touches the ground, Leroy says, “I’m just trying to help you, you know.”
“I highly doubt that, Leroy.”
“You’re too sweet for this family. You probably deserve better.”
“I’m a grown ass woman. I’ll make my own decisions about who I marry. Thank you.”
Leroy waits until he hears Angela open and close the door to the house before leaving the tree. He is tired and still slightly drunk. As he jumps to the ground he slips and lands on his belly, narrowly avoiding a pile of calcified dog shit.
Once he gets his wind back, he creeps through the yard, past the snoring tent, and into the basement. He can hear the few remaining free mice scurry scurry scurry. He considers setting Herm loose to find them. He thinks about Angela. He wishes she had said that stuff in the tree earlier. Or, if not exactly the stuff about his nuts and the knife, then something like it, something feisty. She is, if anything, a greater mystery than ever before, but mysteries can be fun. He closes his eyes, but he doesn’t sleep.
. . .
The wedding is in a huge barn far from town. Dust-speckled light seeps in through cracks in the roof. The uncles wear bolo ties and clip-ons. The cousins squirm and scheme ways to partially disrobe. The aunts fan themselves and stir up the dust. Leroy wears his good pink dress shirt. He stays silent. When the priest does his bit about anyone wanting to say their piece, or forever hold their peace, Leroy imagines Angela cupping his balls, a blade held tight against his sack.
Angela and Greg take their first dance to “Moon River.” Near the end of the song Angela begins to cry, then Sally starts in, then all the aunts. The uncles make jokes and put arms around the aunts’ shoulders. A cousin spills punch on her pink dress. Sally makes a toast.
“Greg, my sweet child,” she says, “after everything you’ve been through, how you’ve come out so good and found someone so lovely is beyond me. Angela, I couldn’t have asked for a better daughter. I’m just so happy the two of you have found each other.”
Sally starts to cry again, then Greg starts to cry, then Angela starts to cry, then all the aunts set back in. “Cheers,” Sally says, and everyone raises their glasses.
Leroy raises his glass and stands up.
“I would like to make a toast also,” he says. He looks over at his brother, sitting at the head table. Leroy can see the terror in Greg’s eyes, which makes Leroy smile, despite himself. There’s a sharpness at the corners of Angela’s lips and a tight worry in Sally’s shoulders.
All night, Leroy had thought about the future, and how it might be good if it were better than the past. He clears his throat and raises his glass high.