Barrel Man, Part 3 | Book Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Barrel Man, Part 3

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

On one level, the Astrodome seemed the antithesis of Saks, while on another it seemed to Leonard a logical outgrowth: a loud, gigantic theater in the round, surrounding a floodlit field of dirt peppered with barrels and circus-ringed rope. Smoke from the pyrotechnics and 10,000 cigarettes collected in the canopy of the dome above them.

The seats were high in the nosebleeds. Leonard's mother led him, beer in hand, through throngs of screaming children, glum men in cowboy hats, frat boys in backward baseball caps slurping back nachos, and old quiet couples, till they found Leonard's father in a suit and tie. He was sunk into a corner seat, looking out at the spectacle with blank resentment, lights reflecting in his round, rimless glasses -- "my John Lennons," he called them. When his father saw them, he stood up, grinned wearily, and hugged Leonard, who had forgotten his hulking presence, the gentle slope of his shoulders.

"Good to see you," his father said. But his voice was weak. And when he let go of Leonard, he looked at Leonard's mother, at her made-up face, at the beer in her hand, and in his face was such a quiet horror and dejection that Leonard had to look down at his nachos and pretend to brush off an offending crumb.

When Leonard had spoken with his father this weekend, to convince him to meet them at the rodeo, he had echoed Leonard's own earlier protests. "I can't do it," he told Leonard. "I can't stand all those hicks in their hats and all their whooping."

He had raised Leonard on Pink Floyd and King Crimson, and though he was a businessman -- he owned the local television station -- and had the hulking presence, husky voice and gentle camaraderie of a businessman, he had never felt himself akin to the company he kept. Above the garage he kept an art studio -- largely unused since Leonard's childhood -- filled with dark, angular oil paintings; he wanted to be Paul Klee. And there was a gentleness to his spirit -- a seeming lack of guile -- that made him popular with his employees.

"Pretend it's Laser Floyd, and it's the '70s, and you're high as a kite," Leonard said.

"How am I going to block out Reba's yodel well enough to channel Dave Gilmour?"

"Bring earplugs," Leonard said. They both laughed. Then the moment passed, and both were silent.

"It's the drinking, Dad. It's made her someone else." And as he said it, Leonard wondered if he himself could believe it. Could it really be so simple -- so devastating -- as that?

"No, it's not," his dad said. "It's those damn pills she's taking, that Celexa. It's made her crazy."

Then his father said, "I don't want to be at any damn rodeo."

But here he was, right in front of them. And Leonard's mother lurched forward to hug him -- too hard, just as she'd hugged Leonard -- spilling a little beer froth on the concrete steps.

Leonard sat between his mother and father. The two hardly looked at each other. This was not going as Leonard had wanted, yet he asked himself what he'd really expected. As the music started up -- "Y'all ready for this?" -- and an array of lights flooded the dirt field, he heard his father mumble, "Let's get this over with," felt his mother squeeze his left wrist as though in plea.

To see anything, they had to look at the Jumbotron to Leonard's right. But he couldn't stand to see the side of his father's wrinkled face, so he fixed his gaze on the small field.

When Reba McEntire entered from on high by pulley ropes -- to thunderous applause and the starry twinkle of flashbulbs -- the whole spectacle looked to Leonard like the lowering of a flea on the end of a loop of sewing thread.

"She's beautiful," said a white-haired, earnest-looking woman standing behind Leonard.

A few rows down, some middle-school skater punks cracked up and sang in unison the theme for Reba's local ad: "I know what I like, and I like Fritos!" His dad heard it and smiled vaguely; then the smile evaporated.

His mother cheered, whispering to her son, "I hate this music too," but raising her jumbo cup of Miller Lite high in the air anyway and letting rip a "Yee-haw." His father turned to her in astonishment. They'd never heard her say this word.

During Reba's set, his mother drank three beers -- Leonard sat frozen, speechless, wanting to knock them from her hand -- and excused herself to the bathroom twice, leaving Leonard alone with his father to listen to Reba crooning songs of mistreating men, of boozing and breaking up, of persevering in the face of it all.

At one point, during his mother's second absence, Leonard's father leaned in. "Did I tell you so?"

"We've got to get these away from her," Leonard said, holding up the half-empty beer cup and pouring its contents on the ground between his legs.

"We've got to do a lot more than that." The words cut Leonard deep, and for a moment he felt panicked, helpless.

When she came back, she did not immediately notice her beer was empty. And then the rodeo started and his mother, who seemed up to this point to have forgotten Leonard was there, ordered another beer and caught Leonard's eyes for just a moment, set her jaw and her eyes as if to say, "Try it, just try it," then looked down dejectedly at the dirt, fluorescents lighting her made-up face.

None of them spoke. Not when the men came out on their bulls and got bucked to the earth, one after another. Not after the hog-tying and lassoing competitions. Not after the strange intermissions, when rodeo clowns ran into the paths of bulls then leapt spastically into barrels, letting the bulls roll them with their noses across the dirt.

The sight of the clowns opened up a hollow space inside of Leonard. He didn't know why but he began to think of his blanket sitting there in the trunk of his car in the airport, hardening in the freeze.

He felt suffocated in the dead space between his mother and father, like a silent brain trapped between rattling eardrums. Something in him was telling him to speak, to say something, but his voice felt muffled, like he was smothered beneath a mound of blankets, unable to move or make a sound, feeling only the heat of his own breath.

He couldn't protect her. He could hear his therapist saying it: You can't protect her. And suddenly he wanted to be out, mobile in this moment, not here in this smoke-infested hick-fest with a resigned dad, a drunkard for a mom and a bunch of painted clowns playing out the metaphor -- the comedy -- of his life.

"Let's go," his father shouted over the din. A rider had just beaten a bull-riding record before being swung unceremoniously to the dirt, scaring up a small cough of dust.

His mother leaned in, pressing her ear against Leonard's chest, jabbing her finger into Leonard's thigh. She was shaking with anger. "We always do what you want." A camera bulb flashed just at the moment his mother reached for his father's lapel and missed. But the force of her arm sent Leonard's nachos flying against the seat back in front of them, splattering it orange. Then she collapsed into Leonard's lap.

His father stood up. The crowd seemed oblivious. Most of them were drunk too. But the old lady behind Leonard, the one who'd said, "She's beautiful," leaned in and asked, "Is she all right?"

Leonard felt his lap fill with something hot. He lifted his mother by the back of her blouse, and a line of white vomit trailed from her lip. Her eyes were closed and her breath was faint.

Leonard said, "No, no, call an ambulance." On the Jumbotron behind his father's frozen frame, another clown, miming laughter, leapt feet first into a barrel.

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