George McLeod's easy life turns to chaos when his bodybuilder cousin Buck Root returns to Minnesota with his sexy girlfriend Joy and her mother Livia, whose sense of reality blurs into the pages of a western novel. For the first time, George understands the rage to live life to its fullest—the rage that has consumed Joy, Buck Root, and Livia. With tragicomic grandeur, Duff Brenna weaves the story of four people who come together in a cataclysmic moment of truth that tests their compassion and capacity to love.
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About the Author
Duff Brenna is the author of The Book of Mamie, which won the AWP Award; The Holy Book of the Beard; and Too Cool, a New York Times Notable Book. A Minnesota native and onetime Wisconsin dairy farmer, Brenna is an English professor. He lives in Poway, California.
Read an Excerpt
Many a Lecherous Lay
THE FIRST TIME I SEE HER she is steering a Lincoln Continental through the neighborhood. Slow as vodka logic she comes, looking left and right, searching for something. Tree leaves reflect fractal patterns off her windshield, smearing her image, bringing her in and out of focus.
I’m on the porch, sweaty from working in the Minnesota heat, my shirt clinging to my back, my toes steaming inside my shoes. I’m smoking my pipe and drinking a can of Grain Belt and watching the Lincoln, the bumper low, sniffing the asphalt. It’s an old car, a four-door boater, champagne-colored, with rust patches showing through the wheel wells, roof dented in the center looking like a little birdbath or a holster for a cannonball. The tires suck at the hot pavement. The engine is idling. A valve lifter ticks beneath the hood.
When she gets closer I see platinum hair, bushy, like a dandelion gone to seed. Her hair shines in the sun for a second, then darkens as the car enters shade, then it shines again. When the car comes parallel, she spots me. The passenger window is open and she is leaning toward it, keeping one hand on the wheel. Her pale skin and pale hair make me think of Icelandic girls with hard cheekbones and translucent skin and eyes bold as glaciers.
The rest of the car eases forward and I can see a man pushing it, a big man with big shoulders, his huge hands splayed across the trunk. His head is down, his back bull-like bulges, his legs churn in slow motion. He glances at me and I see heavy-lidded eyes. Strands of hair cling to his forehead. His breath is harsh, sobbing with effort.
The woman pulls the car to the curb and the man leans his forearms on the lid for a second, then he straightens and pulls his shoulders back, rolls them and groans. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a chest so big, nor shoulders so wide or a neck so thick. He puts his hands on his hips and grins lopsided and says, “She’s a heavy hussy, man.”
I point my pipe at the old Lincoln. “Lincolns,” I say.
“Freeway floaters,” says the man, “but hell to push when they break down.” He winks at me. There is something familiar about him, but I can’t place it. Eyes big as June bugs. I’ve seen those eyes, I tell myself. I’ve seen that jutting chin, that tic of a dimple in it.
Sunlight through the trees shimmies over him. A gold stud in his earlobe sparkles. He glances back at the woman in the car. She is looking at herself in the mirror, fussing with her hair.
And then he says, “Hey, I’m looking for George McLeod. Does that bugger still live here?”
I stand up and cram the can of beer into my shirt pocket. “That’s me. I’m that bugger,” I tell him.
“Hey, George, that really you?”
“Yessir. What can I do for you?”
“What happened to your hair, George?” I finger the top of my head where a few hairs still mark a path down the middle. He smiles and I notice that his upper lip has a fleshy hook pushing it slightly over the front teeth. And that’s when it hits me who he is—big eyes, olive skin, the hook-lip grin. “Mikey?” I say. “That you, Mikey?”
“It’s me, George.”
I laugh and say, “How the hell you get so big, Mikey? Jesus, you look like … like a Sequoia.”
“Pecs, abs and gluteus to the max,” he sings, shifting his butt sideways and patting it. “I growed. I’m not Mikey no more, George. I’m Buck Root.”
“It’s my stage name, my show name.”
“Buck Root,” I say, savoring the sound of it. “So where you been all these years, Buck Root?”
He says he’s been everywhere—east coast, west coast, midwest, down south and up north and down Minneapolis at a competition there: Mr. Minnesota. And he says he thought he might as well come by Medicine Lake and see if I’m still kicking.
“Still kicking,” I say. “Older, fat as a toad and damn near bald, but still kicking, yhah.”
Above him the leaves move. The tip of a leaf brushes his hair and he swats at it. “Thought it was a bee,” he says, staring at the tree as if it has done a whimsical thing. I’m thinking he’s a woman’s dream of what a man should be, nose heroic, velvet lips, and eyes that say bedroom-bedroom.
“So, George, you got a hug for me?” he asks.
I stick my hand out to shake. He grabs it and jerks me in and nearly crushes me. I smell beef on his breath, hamburger beef. He kisses my cheek and roughs me up, then lets go and steps back and looks around. “Hey, I’m glad to know you’re still in the same place,” he says. “Things haven’t changed so much as I thought they would. I expected there would be some shopping mall here, you know. Or maybe some big resort and old ladies in bikinis trying to get laid. But it’s still the same. Trees, houses, lawns, the lake. I remember that tree there.” He points at the spruce in the front yard. “That bugger got tall. What is it now, sixty feet? Seventy?” A wistful look glides over his face. “Lot of wind gone through them needles. Lotta time,” he says.
The woman kills the engine. She has kept primping in the mirror, touching her hair, painting her lips, but now she’s ready. The door protests like old doors do when they’re never oiled, kaareak, ba-wham! as she flings it closed. She moves toward us and I’m watching her hips moving in a sheath of leather skirt and I’m whispering, “Oh wow,” and she catches what I say and she puts on a look like she’s the homecoming queen and she says, “I’m Joy Faust.”
I take her hand. She has a large hand for a woman. The touch of it makes me feel giddy. She’s as tall as me, very thin, with arms pale as taproots. A gold earring drilled through a flap of skin in her navel flashes beneath a blue tanktop that has IMAGINE written on it in silver letters, Gothic style. Her nipples look like bullets pressing against the cloth.
“This is him,” says Buck to her. “This is cousin George.”
“Cousin George,” she says.
I feel my ears burning. I feel my lips quivering, smiling. I make a helpless gesture toward the apartments and say hoarsely, “I live here.” She lets go of my hand. My palm is moist. It feels swollen.
“This is the address all right,” she says. “We almost didn’t get here.” She chucks her chin toward the Lincoln. She looks at me with crinkling, smiling eyes. Her eyes are blue with flecks of gray beneath lashes thick enough to float a toothpick. She has a delicate jaw, a rounded chin, a small nose with a tiny, ball-tipped end, a tempting mouth, the lower lip large and chewy, the upper lip slightly thinner.
Buck is beside her and, even though she is tall for a woman, she looks petite next to him.
“Buck and Joy,” I say. Sunlight shines around them. “You guys look like moviestars,” I say.
Buck’s eyes glitter with pleasure. “Quite a change, hey, George? What’s it been, twenty years since you last saw me?”
I think on it for a second and say, “It was not long after Dad died when you left. So what’s that? I was fifteen. Now I’m forty-four. Twenty-nine years, can it be that long? Twenty-nine years?”
Buck says to Joy, “We all lived right here in these apartments. Both our families. Us upstairs, them downstairs.”
“I know,” says Joy.
“Buck was so skinny back then he had to stand up twice to make a shadow,” I say to her. “But look at him now.”
“I growed and growed,” he says. And he raises his arm, shows a massive biceps. “I’m Buck Root: Mr. Los Angeles, Mr. Philadelphia, Mr. Chicago, Mr. Mount Olympus.”
“And Mr. Baja Peninsula and Mr. Minneapolis Thighs,” adds Joy.
“That name Buck Root,” I tell him. “It rings a bell. I feel like I heard it somewhere.”
“Don’t know.” I concentrate on his name, trying to remember.
“Talkin about me,” says the weightlifter, glancing at Joy. “Everywhere I go, people have heard of the Root. It’s a catchy name, once you hear it, you don’t forget it. Hey, a word to the wise. Fame is in the name. If you know what I mean. Hey, Marion Morrison a.k.a. John Wayne; Archibald Leach a.k.a. Cary Grant; Bernard Schwartz a.k.a. Tony Curtis. Get the picture, George?”
“Norma Jean Baker a.k.a. Marilyn Monroe,” I answer.
Buck looks at Joy. “Told you my cousin was cool.”
“I think I saw you doing some kind of advertisement,” I tell him. “Some kind of thing on TV?”
“The Tube-Flex!” he says. “Hey, you saw my Tube-Flex commercial: Maximum Buff!”
“I didn’t know it was you. How about that! That was you?”
“That was a while ago. Hey, you got a good memory there, George.” He looks at Joy. “George always had a good memory.”
“Buck’s was better,” I say. “He memorized Alice Through the Looking Glass. You remember that, Buck?”
“Sort of do, yeah.”
“My mother. She got you into it. You two seeing who could memorize most. Mom loved you, you know. She said you had the mind of an artist.”
“Hear that, Joy? Mind of an artist.”
I turn to Joy and say, “But mostly he was shy as a mouse, hardly said a word. Mikey Mouse, we called him.”
“Not my Bucky, no way,” says Joy, looking at him as if seeing him new.
“That was then and this is now,” says Buck. He puts his fists into his waist, sticks out his chest and in an announcer’s voice he says, “Be buff! Get Maximum Buff!”
“Buck’s posed in magazines,” says Joy.
“Pumping Iron, I was in that about two years ago. Hey, I’ve been in Bodybuilders, and Steel Body. In Body Sculptors, I was a big article in there. They called me the dean of bodybuilders.”
“Little Mike, the dean of bodybuilders,” I say.
“We won Mr. Minneapolis Thighs this morning,” says Joy. We all pause to look at Buck’s thighs. He is wearing faded jeans and his thighs put a strain on the fabric.
“In Minneapolis … Mr. Thighs,” adds Joy, her words drifting. Then she points at the lake and says, “You get to live on a lake. Lucky you.”
“That’s Medicine Lake,” says Buck. We all look toward the curve at the end of the street, where the lake shows silver threads visible through some trees. “Used to swim right off there, me and George, hey, George?”
“Kids still do,” I tell him. “It’s kid-paradise.”
A car goes by on the road. A bearded figure waves. It is our cousin Ronnie.
“George!” he shouts.
“Ronnie!” I shout.
He honks and keeps going.
“Is that cousin Ronnie?” says Buck.
“That’s him,” I say.
“Another one of my cousins,” says Buck. “How about cousin Larry? Is he still around?”
“Larry’s a Golden Valley cop.”
“A cop! Holy shit, a cop.”
“And Ronnie owns a bar over at Foggy Meadow Lake. He’s got topless dancers.”
“Ronnie owns a topless bar.” Buck shakes his head. He looks at me as if I’m sprinkling wonders all over the place.
“I’ve heard all about you crazy kids,” Joy tells me. She touches my arm. “Crazy kids,” she says again.
I wonder what Buck could have told her that was crazy about us. I recall summer days swimming with my cousins and friends, Mikey hanging at the edges sometimes, but mostly staying indoors, reading, watching TV, eating pretzels and drinking Cokes. Sometimes he would sit for my mother and she would paint him and he would tell her jokes. Buck was a joke collector, kept them on three-by-five cards in a shoebox. He clung to my mother, took her over for a while and made me jealous. His mother, my aunt, was a depressive, stupefied on pills. She couldn’t cope with him. I’d hear her yelling at him, calling him a little bastard, telling him to get out of her sight. My uncle had given up on her, had taken off, disappeared and she cut her wrists then and Mikey stayed with us for months, until my aunt got out of the hospital and took him away, she and Buck going west with some pipefitter she met.
“Hey, our car won’t go when you put it in gear,” Buck says. “Tromp on the gas and the engine roars and nothing happens. What you think is wrong with her?” He is looking at me the same way he did when we were boys and he’d bring his math over. Smart as he was, he never caught on to math. Said it made his head hurt.
I chew my pipe and study the car. “Transmission be my guess. The bands.”
“The bands,” he repeats.
“Or maybe the fluid’s low.”
“Something like that.”
“How much to fix it?”
“Hard to say. Something like that can be tricky, it’d be a wad. You remember Joe Cuff? He can tell you. He’s got a garage over at Crystal Lake.”
“Joe Cuff? He still around? I hated that sonofabitch. He was always kicking my ass. One time he told me I couldn’t go past that telephone pole—that one right there. He said on the other side of that pole was his territory and if I wanted to go through his territory I had to pay a quarter.” Buck starts chuckling, and he tells us how he would sprint past the telephone pole and buy his mother her cigarettes at the store and sprint back, but sometimes Joe Cuff would catch him and beat on him and take his change.
“He’s the same,” I say. “Still likes to fight. He was in Vietnam. Couldn’t wait to get there, afraid the war would be over before he got old enough. Only seventeen and he went over there and won medals—a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Shot in the kidney. He’s only got one now. A big scar where the other one was. That’s Joe Cuff for you. No fear.”
“Hated that sonofabitch big-time,” grumbles Buck. He cocks a serious eyebrow at me. “You see these fists?” he says. His fists look hard as stones, the knuckles volcanic. “Next time we meet, I’ll be taking his quarters, you watch.”
I LOOK AT THE CAR and feel pity for it. Old and decrepit and starting to cause trouble, the Lincoln is a candidate for the bone yard, get rid of it. Everything about it is sagging. Tires are curb-chewed, bits of body rusting away, showing a dozen rusty red holes, like steel termites are living in it. I run my hand over the dent in the roof and think about taking a bathroom plunger and sucking the dent out. “How’d this happen?” I ask. “Somebody shoot a cannonball at you?”
“That’s his fist,” says Joy. “Hammered it that way. Just one blow. Bam! The day we lost Mr. Reno. Buck was mad. Boom!” She makes a fist and brings it down on the roof to show how he made the dent. “Boom! like that,” she says and the roof reverberates.
“Hey!” yells a voice inside the car. “Quit poundin on my head, goddammit!”
I hadn’t noticed anyone in the backseat, but then I see her and she is hardly bigger than a monkey, a hoop of a lady bent over, her head hiding between her shoulders. I nod at her and say, “I didn’t see you there.”
“I seen you,” she says, her tone crabby. She has violent red hair and a face seamed like a walnut. She has a yellow-and-black-striped afghan across her shoulders. On her lap is a paperback book and next to her is a pug-faced, black-and-white dog. The dog raises its head, looks at me with foggy eyes, opens its mouth to bark, thinks better of it, lowers its chin on its paws again.
I glance at the title of the book: West of the Pecos. A narrow-eyed, dark-skinned cowboy is looking at me and drawing a gun from a holster.
“That’s my mom,” says Joy. “And that’s Ho Tep.”
“Ho Tep,” I say.
“Chinese god of happiness,” says Joy. “Or maybe it was Egypt. I can’t remember. Mom, is Ho Tep Chinese or Egyptian god of happiness?”
“What you askin me for? You named him, didn’t you?”
“I wouldn’t be asking if I had.” Joy whispers, “She’s getting forgetful.”
“Ho Tep,” I repeat. The name makes me smile. “The god of happiness, huh?”
“He’s seventy-seven in dog years.” Joy leans her head in the window and shouts, “Mom, this is him, this is Buck’s cousin, this is George McLeod!”
The old lady puts her hands over her ears. “Am I deeef?” she says.
“You are when you wanna be,” mutters Joy.
The old lady snorts. Then she looks at me and works up a bloodless smile and she says, “Pleased to meet you. I’m Livia Miles.”
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
“He says ma’am,” says the old lady. She has slightly crossed eyes and I don’t know which one to look at. “I’m thirsty,” she says, pointing to the top of the can sticking out of my shirt pocket. I slip the beer out and offer it to her and she snatches it, finishes it off in a few swallows.
“Good beer,” she says, and burps politely behind her fingers.
Stepping over to the trash bucket at the curb, I drop the can inside and a mess of flies fly out and swizzle around my head. One flicks off my chin and I swat at it and watch it zip over to the Lincoln and land on the back window and feel its way around a nickel-sized hole in the glass. The hole has a web of fine lines circling it. I go over and wiggle my pinky through the hole, feel the edges tugging at me. Joy and Buck are watching.
“Big hole,” I say.
“Big gun,” says Buck.
“It went off,” says Joy.
She and Buck look at one another. I am wondering if the bullet came from inside or outside, wondering who was shooting at whom. I wait a second for the story, but no one says anything. Joy takes hold of the hem of her skirt, gives it a shake, then waves at a mosquito.
“Minnesota’s sticky,” she says, shaking her skirt again.
I’m downwind. A not unpleasant scent of female drifts my way and I think how long it’s been since I smelled Connie Hawkins.
Joy pinches her nostrils and says, “I’m ripe. I need a shower.”
I check inside the car and see the bent lady holding the book, turning a page, her lips forming words. The dog sleeps with the tip of his tongue sticking out. His lower canines thrusting up on each side full of tartar. A cross-breeze runs through the open windows and pecks at the old lady’s hair and I see patches of scalp. She doesn’t seem to feel the heat. The afghan over her shoulders hangs like furled butterfly wings.
I tell Buck and Joy that they might as well come in and use the phone. Joe Cuff has a tow truck that can haul the car down to his garage.
“That’s a plan,” says Buck, looking at Joy.
“Them too?” I ask, pointing at Livia and the dog.
“Let them stay,” says Joy. “They won’t even know we’re gone.”
I lead the way up the walk to the porch and stand to the side, motioning Joy and Buck to go first. The wooden stairs, dimpled with age, sag under Buck. His body fills the entrance, his head dipping as he goes through into the hall.
“Same place. You know where it is,” I tell him.
THE ALTAR OF THE BODY. Copyright © 2001 by Duff Brenna. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Table of Contents
PART ONE - Many a Lecherous Lay,
PART TWO - Do Not Go Gentle,
PART THREE - Fire Monsters in the Milky Brain,
ALSO BY DUFF BRENNA,
Praise for Duff Brenna's The Altar of the Body,
Author's Acknowledgment of Sources,
About the Author,