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.