Read an Excerpt
One day in the summer when he turned twelve
years old and when a fragrance of sweet alfalfa hay and llama
musk was drifting through the windows and into the house on a
breeze from the pastures and cool shade of the little barn where
pigeons cooed in the rafters, Leroy Dearman realized that the day
had finally come. What had been planned for so long could now
be undertaken. Leroy's mama had company coming over, the Evil
Queen, Leroy called her, who dressed all in black, with heavy
makeup and real pale skin and long black hair and was known to
be modern, with scary ways of speaking and smelly cigarettes
from France. She was ugly, too--U-G-L-Y, you ain't got no alibi,
you're ugly--the schoolyard phrase would not leave Leroy's
head. The Evil Queen had a new baby, so Leroy's sisters wouldn't
give Leroy any trouble, Laurie and Molly, who would want to
hang around the baby. Molly was the little one, three years old, bed wetter
first class, redheaded, thick as a stump. Laurie, she was eight, lithe and
blonde, that girl could cuss, slap you, too. Leroy's palms were
sweating, his heart seemed to flutter. "Creepy-crawly," he
whispered, to give himself courage. The Evil Queen and Leroy's
mama had made plans at coffee hour at the church. The Queen, in
her frightening modern way, had said, "Lunch, okay, but not at my
house. Nobody should be forced to eat in a house where a dentist
has slept, it's cruel and unusual, it's disgusting, and not at that
sandwich place either, not the Flyspeck Cafe, their pies are good,
but oh my God, I cannot, will not, fight with that little bitch about
salad dressing again today, I do not have the strength, the war is
over and that little redneck in the Howdy Partner apron won, it's
inedible, her ranch dressing, it's vile, it ought to be banned by law,
get your butt in that kitchen and get me something not outlawed
by the Food and Drug Administration and take off that stupid
apron before I rip it off your ugly ass and shove it down your
throat, do I sound psychotic, Elsie, I hope I don't sound sort of
out of my mind, I mean, I am out of my mind, I just don't want to
sound that way." Ugly. Creepy-crawly.
Leroy breathed in the familiar fragrances of the farm, and doing
this made him suddenly cautious. He decided he'd better check
one more time to see if the coast was clear. Leroy's Uncle Harris
lived in the attic now and kept magazines up there, grown-up
magazines with pictures, Leroy had seen him sneak them in the
house along with his newspapers, inside a bag of groceries,
beneath his shirt. Uncle Harris was away
from the house today and Leroy meant to see those pictures,
Playboy and Penthouse, he'd seen their bright covers on the
magazine stand at the drugstore in the village, so he had an idea
what was inside. He had been waiting for the perfect day and now
it had come, and as long as he was up there maybe he'd check out
Uncle Harris's shirt drawers, too, his pants pockets, beneath his
mattress, it couldn't hurt. He caught a glimpse of
the vast vistas of boundary violation, open wide.
He walked up to the front of the house where his mama and the
Evil Queen were sitting on the shaded front porch in the wicker
furniture and said, "I ain't snooping," just in case. His mama and
the Evil Queen were having glasses of iced tea with some mint
sprigs that Leroy's mama had picked out in the side yard. They
acted like they thought they might be pretty hot stuff, which they
weren't, in Leroy's humble opinion. How hot could you be, living
on a llama farm? Sunshine filtered through a few low clouds. The
temperature was mild, the air was leaf-green and fragrant with
buttercups. Here and there a single tree beyond the pasture fence,
a thick-trunked black walnut, or a slender willow or tulip, caught
an occasional bright ray, like a spotlight. A breeze came up that
smelled a little like rain. A swarm of bees circled, looking for a tree.
Leroy's mama--Elsie was her name--she had made tuna salad
sandwiches and deviled eggs for lunch. She had cut the crusts off
the bread and used sprigs of watercress on the sandwiches, in the
place of lettuce, la-di-da. She stood in front of the refrigerator with
the door open. She said, "How much do
you hate Kool-Aid?" The Evil Queen laughed, that witchy
sound like pigeons in the barn, ooh-ooh-ooh, what was that
ugly woman's real name?
Elsie saw Leroy standing against the door frame.
She said, "Leroy, you scared me."
He said, "I ain't snooping."
She said, "You are the oddest child."
The two women ignored Leroy, they were taking a little
tour of the farm. Elsie showed the Evil Queen the pantry,
the shelves of Mason jars filled with bright fruit, row after
row of tomatoes, jars of Blue Lake green beans, new
potatoes, okra, yellow corn, speckled lima beans,
bread-and-butter pickles. The Evil Queen was a city lady,
village anyhow, she said she liked to look at the farm, it was
the perfect life, and you're so lucky, and like that.
Elsie said, "Come on outside with us, Leroy."
He said, "Why? I ain't going to snoop in the attic. You
don't trust me. You've never trusted me."
She said, "Don't say ain't, honey."
Outside Elsie showed the Evil Queen the shed with tools
and fence wire-stretching equipment and farm implements
hung up on hooks along the wall. Leroy had to tag along, his
sisters, too. He should have gone on and snooped in the attic
when he had the chance. They went in the little barn, filled
with sweet hay. The baby llamas came up looking for gorp,
the sweetened grain Elsie gave them as treats. Pigeons
cooed in the rafters. Leroy thought the Evil Queen might rise up into
the rafters of the barn and perch there with them, that
woman was ugly. Elsie held out a zinc bucket of the
sweetened grain for the Evil Queen to dip her hand into.
Her nails were long, they were enameled with deep purple
polish. The Evil Queen scooped up the gorp and held it in
her hand and when she felt the gentle lips of the llama suck
it away like a little vacuum cleaner, she made that funny
little witchy sound again, ooh. She did sound like the
pigeons. She said, "I thought it would bite! I thought it would
be all slobbery! Ooh."
Creepy-crawly, it was the attic calling for Leroy,
Penthouse, Playboy. Leroy turned and walked away from his
mama and the Evil Queen and went inside the house, the
call was too strong to resist any longer. He let the screened
door slap shut behind him when he went inside. He stood
beneath the trapdoor and pulled a kitchen chair into the
hallway and stood on it. He grabbed the hanging rope on the
trapdoor and jumped off the chair and swung down like
Tarzan on a vine. The door pulled open from above and slid
down the metal gliders into the hall. Leroy went up into
Uncle Harris's attic room. Behind him as he went he heard
the soft, frantic bleating of one of the llamas, a young
female up near the second row of pens, not far out in the
pasture. He knew the animal had gotten her head stuck
between the squares of wire, one of the young llamas, trying
to reach a clump of sweeter grass. He imagined her little
anvil-shaped head hooked in the fence. He imagined one of
the male llamas pacing back and forth. It spat several times.
Leroy reached the top of the stairs and rose up into the attic.
Uncle Harris's made-up bed with two pillows, the bedside table, the
little bookshelf with a few books, a rocking chair with a caned
bottom and a ladder back, and the tasseled lamp with a fringed
shade meant nothing to Leroy now. Not the tiny chest of drawers,
the oval hook rug on the floor, the steep A-frame of the attic itself,
its bare board floor and exposed beams, not the trousers on the
chair, nothing held meaning for Leroy. He was looking for
magazines. The magazines were there, Leroy had not been
mistaken about that. They glowed in the dark, they were
plutonium, that end of the attic room was bathed in a strange light,
their colors shown like a cache of gold in a fairy tale, a sound of
deep-throated electrical thrumming emanated from the stack. He
had suspected they would be here. He had seen them come into
the house, oh, he had known they would be here, all right. He just
had not known they would be so easy to find, so immediately in
full view. He had expected to have to search for them, maybe not
to find them at all. He realized now that he had halfway hoped he
would not find them. There they were. They were not strewn
about, not hidden away. There were no drawers to search through.
As if they were as innocent as any other detail of the llama farm,
they sat quietly glowing and thrumming in a stack on Uncle
Harris's bedside table.
Leroy noticed that he was trembling. He listened to be sure no
one had entered the house. He knew that his mama must have
unhooked the she-llama from the fence by now. The tour with the
Evil Queen could not last much longer. His legs felt
weak. He sat on the edge of Uncle Harris's bed. The magazines
were inches away. He could smell them, a manly perfume, like
musk. They glowed with a rich yellow light. He tried to regularize
his breathing. He breathed deeply a few times, and this caused him
to feel light-headed. He picked up one of the magazines. He held it
in his lap, not even open. Every place the magazine touched him
felt like electricity. It buzzed, it crackled at his touch. He forced his
eyes down, forced them not to close in fear, he looked at the
On the cover stood a woman wearing a western vest, she had
on very tight shorts, which seemed to have come unzipped. Leroy
hated to have somebody point out when his pants were unzipped,
so he said nothing. He almost said, "Hi," but managed not to say
this either. He held the magazine in his lap. He looked at the cover
for a long time. For a long time he only looked at the strip of flesh
from her throat to her belly button, where the vest was parted. He
hoped that by looking hard he might cause the vest to open
farther. It did not. He looked briefly at the half unzipped shorts and
averted his eyes. He wasn't sure he was ready to work his magic
there, it seemed a little risky. He studied the woman's face. He
wished he knew her a little better, maybe he wouldn't feel quite so
awkward looking at her like this. She was smiling, he noticed, a
nice smile too, real sincere, she had excellent teeth, extra white and
not a bit bucked. He thought his own teeth were beginning to
buck out a little. He pushed at them with his thumb, he did this
whenever nobody was looking, trying to
coax them back in a little. Anyway, he was glad she was smiling,
that was a relief, it pleased him to think she was happy. He wasn't
sure why she was so happy, come to think of it. It didn't make
much sense for her to be this happy, under the circumstances.
Somebody had taken her picture before she really even finished
getting dressed. It seemed like to Leroy she might be embarrassed,
or even angry. He knew he would be angry, he'd die of
embarrassment if somebody took his picture with his pants
unzipped. He looked at the photograph more closely. Something
wasn't right here. Those clothes, for example. They weren't even
her clothes. Those shorts couldn't have belonged to her, they
were much too little. Look at that, they wouldn't meet at the waist.
No wonder she couldn't get them zipped up right. Somebody had
put this lady's little sister's shorts in her dresser drawers and made
her think they were her own, then when she went to put them on,
took a picture of her in them. Man, that was low, that was mean.
That really fried Leroy. This was one of those jokes that just
wasn't funny, if you wanted Leroy's personal opinion. His penis
was stiff and aching and he had to adjust it to one side of his
pants, but that didn't keep him from feeling indignant about the
practical joker who popped in on this perfectly nice lady and took
her picture while she was getting dressed in clothes about ten
sizes too small for her. How could you stand it? How could
anybody ever go to school again, face your friends? It was awful.
Boy, that riled Leroy, that really fried him, how could anybody
trick this nice lady like that?
He kept looking at the picture. His you-know-what was
seriously stiff now. He wondered if he ought not let it out for a
little while, give it some air, it could smother in there, all cramped
up. Something about this picture, though. Where did she think she
was going in that outfit in the first place? Even if she'd had time to
get finished dressing, even if she'd noticed these dinky clothes
couldn't possibly belong to her, Leroy couldn't think of a single
place on earth where she could have worn those shorts and a
western-style vest and fit in. Nobody else would be wearing
anything close to this, you could bank on it. Did she really imagine
she could wear this getup and blend in with any group of normal
people she'd ever heard of, even for one second? If you looked
close you could see that the vest didn't have any buttons on it
anyway, no buttonholes for them to go through. Well, see, right
there. Where did she get that stupid vest? He hoped she had kept
the receipt. She got gypped, man. She got gypped, and good. She
went to Gyp City and took up residence, she ran for mayor. She'd
never get a refund now, she'd already worn it. She should have
tried it on at the store. He unzipped his pants to relieve a little
strain on the fabric, to give one part of himself a little breathing
room, even if there was no oxygen getting to his brain. He turned
He turned many pages. Writing writing writing writing writing,
some shoe advertisements. He turned the page again. Well, what
do you know, he couldn't believe his eyes, here was somebody
he recognized. It was another picture of the
same woman he had seen on the front cover, that poor girl. What
had she done with her vest? She'd lost her vest! And where were
her pants, for God's sake? What on earth had she done with her
pants? Not only that. She had breasts. Nipples on the ends, one
each, two total, count them for yourself. She had hair between her
legs, like a triangle, right on her you-know-what place. Do you
really need to hear any more?
That was not all, though. She was wearing a big white cowboy
hat and a gun belt. She was pointing two silvery six-shooters out
into the room she was standing in. At least she might be able to
make a citizen's arrest of the person with the camera. She was
wearing cowboy boots with yellow sunbursts at the ankles. She
was still smiling, big smile, full set of white teeth, you could count
Leroy kept looking at the magazine. One part of him seemed to
see the six-shooters pointing at it and that part was reaching for
the rafters. He patted it to calm it down. Leroy understood now, he
understood something about the woman in the picture, and it was
not good, not a bit, it was bad, in fact, plenty bad. The lady in the
picture suffered from mental illness, was retarded possibly,
deranged, completely out of touch with reality. She needed help.
She would never get her pants on now, even if she could find a
pair that fit her. She would have to start all over, dressing herself,
and Leroy had no confidence that she could do it. He hoped she
wouldn't try to pull on her pants over those damn boots. They'd
never make it. Leroy had tried that stunt on school mornings, half asleep,
and it doesn't work, just normal shoes, not even boots. Put the camera
down, asshole. Find this lady's clothes. Where were her friends,
her parents, her minister? The world seemed to be caving in
Just then the porch door downstairs opened and closed. Leroy
heard the sound and sat still, with the magazine open in his lap. He
looked at his penis and suspected it would never go back to
normal. He stuffed it back inside his pants and zipped up and
listened. He expected to hear voices but he did not, only
footsteps. Only one set of footsteps. He closed the magazine and
placed it on the bedside table. He stood and walked close to the
trapdoor, the better to hear whoever was downstairs. He placed
each foot on the floor carefully to prevent the boards from
squeaking. He stood very still, just beside the hole in the floor. He
heard the Evil Queen's baby crying a little. He heard the Evil
Queen's voice. He understood now that the Evil Queen was going
to kill the baby. He went to the attic window and looked out, the
side of the house toward the llama lot. He saw his mother and
sisters there, among the llamas. He watched a young doe go
bounding away from Elsie like a spring-toy. The little tail was
standing straight up, waving like a flag. Leroy walked down the attic
steps without trying to hide. He didn't bother to put the trapdoor
back up. He was probably too late to save the baby. He felt like he
was smothering. Smothering in pain, he guessed he would have
said, if he'd thought to say anything at all. He surprised the Evil
Queen, whose back was to him, bent over the child, at
the bed. He said, "Don't" She looked up. She was hideous, pale as
a witch. He started to say, "Don't kill the baby," but then decided
not to. The Evil Queen finished changing the wet diaper, it took
only a few seconds, and when she finished she lifted the infant,
who had stopped crying now. She balanced it on her hip. Leroy
realized with a shock that the Evil Queen was not ugly after all,
she was beautiful. He couldn't believe it, but she was. In the
strangest way she reminded him of the woman in the magazine,
though they looked nothing alike. Suddenly he knew why people
fell in love and wanted to marry, he understood why they wanted
to have children, to live together for a lifetime. He couldn't believe
he had ever thought she could harm her baby. She was so
beautiful the sight of her made him ache, her washboardlike bony
chest, the downy hair on her arms. He heard his heart begin to
speak in his own silent voice, it cried out to her, words vague and
surprising and indistinct, I want you, I need you, I love you, he
understood Elvis Presley at last. The Evil Queen smiled a warm
smile. She turned around. She said, "Why, Leroy, hello. I thought
I heard somebody. Did you sneak up on me?"
That evening, when the sun went down, a big yellow ball beyond
the red clay hills in the hazy west, the llamas, who were many
colors of brown and rust and pure white and pure black and
mottled, turned to face the sun, as they did each evening, and
again when it rose in the morning, and they flicked their big
corn-shuck ears, they shrugged the coarse fur
of their broad backs, they stretched their giraffelike necks, and
they began to groan, low, low, and then louder, to sing their
strange llama-song, first one llama, and then another, and another,
until all the llamas were singing in their rich individual voices,
blended in a strange chorus. They sang each day to the rising and
the setting sun. Leroy's daddy, a one-armed man, came in on the
tractor from the fields, Uncle Harris, wearing one of his
Hawaiian-print shirts, looked up from his newspaper, Leroy's
mama dried her hands and walked out on the porch, Laurie, Molly,
Leroy, too, all of them stood at the end of the day and listened in
the last sunshine to the song of the llamas.
Later when Leroy was lying in his bed, wearing only his crinkly
pajama bottoms on this warm night, he looked out his window
where there was moonlight, yellow as gold in the tree limbs, and
thought of the naked woman in the pictures in Uncle Harris's
magazine. He wondered if he could be in love with her--he
thought he was in love with her--because when he thought of
her face, the nakedness of her flesh, the innocence of her smile, he
wanted nothing more than to stay near her forever, to save her
each day from some new danger, fire, wild beasts, evil men. He
wondered how he could kiss her, as she was so much taller than
himself, then realized he didn't know how to kiss, not the kind of
kiss a boy would need to know about if he were in love with this
woman. His head spun, the retarded magazine lady and the Evil
Queen had become confused in his mind, they seemed now to be the same
person. He imagined kissing his mother's friend. All his dreams
were heartbreaking, and all were vague in details. He found
that he did not want to touch himself in the way he had in the
attic, and then as he was realizing this he found that he was
touching himself and thinking of her, this composite person,
dark and fair, and he lay and touched and breathed hard and
then did not need to do this anymore for a while.
His mama came in later, to say good night, as she always
did, making her rounds of the children. She sat on the edge of
his small bed.
She said, "Are you all right, honey?"
He said, "I guess so."
She said, "I worry about you sometimes."
He lay in the moonlight and could not think what to say. He
could feel the warmth of her rear end against his leg. An
electrical spark seemed to flash between their two bodies. He
didn't want his mama's face getting mixed up with the faces of
the magazine lady and the Evil Queen. He wondered if she
knew he had been in the attic. He wondered if she knew about
the magazines. He wondered whether she had come in before
he finished with his touching and breathing and had seen him;
it was possible, he had become too involved in his daydreams
to pay close attention to whoever might have passed by his
He said, "I think something is wrong with me."
His mama said, "What is it, Leroy?"
"I don't know."
She patted his leg. She said, "Well, you're growing up.
That's one thing, I suppose."
He said, "Tell me the story."
She said, "Oh, honey, no, not that old story. Not again."
He said, "Tell it, Mama."
She said, "Oh, well, all right, let's see." She told the
familiar tale, the one the children always wanted to hear. She told
about the day she fell in love with their daddy. "We were
young," she said. "We hadn't known each other very long. Your
daddy had an old car. He took me far out in the country on a
long drive. He stopped beside a big field and parked the car. I
thought he was going to kiss me. It was getting close to dark.
Instead he said, `Listen.' I listened and heard them running,
thirty of them, or more. I thought they were horses when I
saw them. Their hooves were flying. They sounded like thunder
in the hills. They came closer. I saw the slender bodies, the
long necks, legs so thin you wondered how they held them up.
I saw their faces, the pointed snouts and big ears and bulging
eyes. They were all colors. Llamas. I had never seen a llama.
They were running for the fun of it. That's when I fell in love."
She stopped. Leroy lay for a while in the moonlight with his
mama beside him.
He said, "Is that the end?"
She kissed him on the forehead. "I guess so," she smiled.
He said, "Did he kiss you?"
She said, "Leroy!"
He said, "Did he?"
She said, "Oh, well, sure he did, honey." She blushed in a way
that Leroy loved to see.
She said, "You are growing up, aren't you! Is my young man
growing up? First thing I know, you'll be heading for trouble."