Leonard, essay by Brannon Miller

In my mother’s roman­tic his­to­ry, between the book­ends of her divorce from my father when I was two and her mar­riage to my step­fa­ther when I was sev­en, there was Leonard. I remem­ber Leonard being tall, with sinewy mus­cles stretched out against long, thin limbs cov­ered in ashen skin that always looked dirty, even after he show­ered. He had stringy, greasy hair that he kept under a base­ball cap and sunken, dark eyes. And Leonard always smelled like beer. And I hat­ed that smell. It singed my nos­trils, sur­round­ed me, gagged me. Stand­ing near him, I would choke and sput­ter. I would try to be polite and not open­ly hold my nose, but chil­dren lack sub­tle­ty, and I’m sure he knew, and I’m sure it hurt his feelings.

On Sat­ur­day morn­ings in the sum­mer, he would pick the three of us up—my moth­er, my sis­ter, and me—and we would dri­ve to Sum­rall where his chil­dren lived with their moth­er. Andrew and Rebec­ca were their names. Rebec­ca was beau­ti­ful. She was sev­er­al years old­er than the rest of us, and she had her father’s long limbs and stringy, greasy hair, but her skin looked soft, and her eyes were big and bright. She had the looks and demeanor of one of Chopin’s trag­ic mulat­toes, with a dark com­plex­ion and a cer­tain noble air, though there was always an over­whelm­ing sense of sad­ness sur­round­ing her, some sort of hope­less­ness that I couldn’t quite under­stand. It didn’t mat­ter to me though; she was a white trash flower ready to bloom, and I loved her.

My sis­ter and Rebec­ca would ride in the front with our par­ents, and Andrew and I would lie down in the back of the truck with Leonard’s cool­er so the cops wouldn’t see us. In this man­ner we rode to the water park in Hat­ties­burg, Pep’s Point. It was set back in the woods on a creek, so that when you slid down the slides you didn’t end in a clean, chlo­rine-filled pool, but instead fell into the brown, dirty creek water. Every so often, some­one would yell, “Snake!” and we would scream and run out of the water, extras in a B‑hor­ror-movie that would nev­er get shot. From there, we would make our way to the put-put course on the oth­er side of the park. Leonard would show us how to angle our shots and how to hit the ball with just the right amount of force, and my moth­er would clap when we made it in the hole. 

In the evening, we would take Andrew and Rebec­ca home. Leonard would stop at a gas sta­tion and buy a case of Bud Heavy, and he would buy me a pack of Big Peach or RC Cola, what­ev­er was cheap­est, and we would open our respec­tive box­es and push the cans down into the cool­er. I’d stay in the back even though there was room for me again in the front. Part­ly, it was because the cool met­al of the truck felt good against my sun­burned skin, but I also didn’t want to sit next to Leonard—not because I didn’t like him, but because I didn’t like the way he smelled. His sick­ly-sweet scent nau­se­at­ed me, so I laid in the back of the truck, feet pressed against the tail­gate, avoid­ing now both the cops and Leonard’s beer smell.

When we got back home, my mom would put on some of her tapes: Loret­ta Lynn, Travis Tritt, Garth Brooks. Maybe some Bon­nie Raitt, but not the polit­i­cal stuff. She would dance with my sis­ter and smoke Vir­ginia Slims, while Leonard and I sat on the couch. I would drink my cheap soft drinks, and he would make his way through the case of Bud­weis­er, mak­ing a tow­er of beer cans on the floor beside him. Around eight thir­ty, my moth­er would put my sis­ter to bed and sit on the couch between “her two men.” They’d let me watch a movie with them, a grown-up movie, as long as I promised to close my eyes any­time some­one got naked. Smoth­ered in aloe and cig­a­rette smoke, Leonard’s smell would become bear­able, and I could relax a lit­tle more around him. In spite of my large intake of caf­feine and sug­ar, by the mid­dle of the movie I would usu­al­ly be asleep, head on my mother’s lap.

By the time I awoke the next day, Leonard would be gone, but his smell would remain. And what had been ren­dered harm­less the night before became nox­ious in the hot light of the morn­ing. It would sud­den­ly seem to be every­where, fill­ing the room with its stale sweet­ness, and I would gag, caught in the gasses of this chem­i­cal war­fare. I tried to explain to my moth­er that this, this smell, was unbear­able, but she nev­er seemed to under­stand, tak­ing my dis­taste of the odor for a dis­taste of the man. “Leonard’s a great guy,” she would say, “and he’s good to you. Bet­ter than your own dad­dy, that’s for sure. I don’t want to hear you say anoth­er word about it.”

With­out her sup­port, I knew my only options were to live out­side or get rid of the smell. Since I saw that per­ma­nent­ly camp­ing in my yard wasn’t a real option, I decid­ed to go after the smell. On one par­tic­u­lar­ly unbear­able Sun­day morn­ing, while my moth­er still slept, I snuck into the kitchen, mak­ing my way towards the refrig­er­a­tor. There, in the veg­etable draw­er, I found what I believed to be the source of my dis­com­fort: three unopened cans of Bud­weis­er and a bot­tle of Bud Light. The cans were easy enough to dis­pose of; I opened them up, pour­ing them one by one down the drain, all the while hold­ing my nose against what I assumed would be a nau­se­at­ing odor. The bot­tle was trick­i­er to open, and after cut­ting my hand on the cap, I gave up and sim­ply took it the edge of our prop­er­ty. I stood next to the trash pile where we burned our garbage on the week­ends, look­ing out into the edge of the for­est where my grandfather’s field start­ed. I took the bot­tle and threw it into the woods as far as I could. 

Of course, my vic­to­ry was short-lived. When I entered the house, the smell remained. What I didn’t under­stand then was that it wasn’t the smell of beer that made me sick; it was the smell of an alcoholic’s sweat. Leonard was a roofer, and he would drink beer all day while he worked, knock­ing back tall boys as he laid shin­gles and ham­mered nails in hun­dred degree heat. Between the heat and the toil, the beer that was in his body would get pushed out, mix­ing with the salts in his skin and form­ing a sweat whose odor could fill a room. It was this smell that I hat­ed, the smell of an alco­holic who worked all day in the Mis­sis­sip­pi sun, and this smell could not be got­ten rid of by me throw­ing out a few cans and bottles.

My moth­er and Leonard even­tu­al­ly sep­a­rat­ed, and I no longer had to deal with his smell. Prob­a­bly a decade lat­er, she told me that he had asked her to mar­ry him, and she had said yes, on the con­di­tion that he give up drink­ing. Forced to choose between her and the booze, he chose the booze, and they split. At the time, I thought that made Leonard cold, but I don’t think that way any­more. When I was twen­ty one, a girl told me that when she drank beer, the smell remind­ed her of me, so I know why Leonard left.

And as I grew up, I learned about oth­er smells you could find on a man–the smell of burn­ing plas­tic on a crack addict; the smell of open sores and rot­ting flesh on a sick man’s body; the smell of formalde­hyde and methanol on a corpse. Those are smells that real­ly hurt; those are smells that hold you and don’t let go, that fol­low you around and find you in your dreams.

And now, when I’m back home or at some run-down gas sta­tion out in the coun­ty, and I come across a man with hol­low eyes and ashen skin—when I see the sad­ness that sur­rounds him and I’m sud­den­ly caught in that sick­ly-sweet and (now I real­ize) salty cloud of odor that is the smell of a man whose body is so filled with booze that it leaks from his pores—I don’t feel sick. I feel thirsty.


Bran­non Miller is a native of Bass­field, Mis­sis­sip­pi and a 2012 grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­sis­sip­pi. He resides in Oxford, where he works as a cashier in a gas station.

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