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October 6, 2009 / Maleesha Kovnesky

A Pipe in the Ground

Leroy was his name, and he was the only black guy in town, as far as I know. A novelty. He also lived at the end of our block, in a pink tinted trailer edged in sea-foam green and rust. On Sunday afternoons in the summer, Hey Good Looking, Whatcha Got Cookin’ and other 1920s country classics blared from a record player in his trailer, wafted out of the duct-taped screens and filled the neighborhood. He was deaf, so the music was always loud enough to vibrate the chain link fences that caged in all the simple yards of crabgrass, violas, and dandelions. He didn’t have family, apart from a little yapping dog that was always chained to the doorknob.

Leroy didn’t drive. He rode a simple ten-speed bicycle around town, doing whatever it was that Leroy did. Sometimes we saw him riding his bike uptown, miles from home. Other times we saw him leaving the grocery store with a sack tied to the handlebar. He would always smile and wave at me. He and my dad were friends, occasionally splitting a six pack in the evenings. My dad would be shirtless in the backyard at the end of the day. Leroy would sit next to him, always wearing a button up western style shirt and a cowboy hat. Always a cowboy hat. I don’t recall what they talked about, as those were adult conversations, and what child in their right mind paid attention to the boring, unimportant words exchanged between grownups?

The crabgrass around Leroy’s trailer often grew to Amazonian heights. If this drew complaints from other neighbors, I wasn’t privy.  I liked the tall grass.  It served the purpose of disguising the fence posts that were long overdue for a coat of paint. The grass concealed broken beer bottles left behind by teenagers and the neighborhood drunks.  The tall grass was a breath of fresh air…it was nothing like the short, emerald green lawn of Mr. Bob’s house…the lawn that we would get chased away from if we dared roll and play in the lush, inviting expanse.  We never got yelled at for taking shortcuts through Leroy’s yard.

One Halloween, I decided to knock on Leroy’s door. I was dressed as a hobo. Trick or treat, I whispered, almost hoping that no one answered the door. Trick or treating was almost over, and I wanted another bag of M&Ms.  I was a bit scared of Leroy. Why? I have no idea. I liked him, and my family liked him. But he just stayed in that garish pink trailer, day after day, and didn’t have a car. He didn’t have many teeth. But still, he fascinated me.  Maybe it was a general feeling that I had sensed from some of the other townsfolk…maybe I wasn’t supposed to like him. But I did anyway. So I knocked on his door.

Leroy was pleased to see me. “Hello, Maleetha!  Happy Halloween,” he said. “Tho glad to see you!” His s’s came out like th’s, probably because of all those missing teeth. He looked to the left and right.  “I don’t got no candy,” he said.  “But you wait right here. I have thomething jutht for you.”

Leroy disappeared into his trailer. I briefly contemplated whether or not I was going to be in trouble for trick or treating at Leroy’s house. He returned to the door holding a stuffed animal. A lion. “Happy Halloween,” Leroy told me, handing me the lion.

The lion was a felt toy, an old one, with a missing eye. A small circular hole on the lion’s shoulder showed the cotton stuffing inside. Later I would understand these particular holes were cigarette burns.

I accepted the lion without a smile. “Thanks, Leroy,” I said.

“Lionth king of the jungle,” he said. “Lionth are powerful. They can do anything. Jutht like you,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said again. I walked home. The lion went on my shelf, a ragged, dirty vagrant amongst a sea of bright stuffed tigers and a cabbage patch kid.

Life took over and I went from a bike riding tomboy to a junior high teen, and eventually to a hardened high school student who couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Butte, Montana.  One day I heard that Leroy had died. Suddenly the memory of the stuffed lion returned. I wished that I would have gone back to visit Leroy as I had gotten older, and talked to him more. I bet he had a lot of stories that I would have loved to hear about.  And like so many moments in life, I knew that it was too late.  It would always be too late.  And then it dawned on me that the lion Leroy had given me that long ago day had been his own as a child. The missing eye and the burnt hole in the shoulder. The lion had been with Leroy through all of his own hard times. He had held onto it for a lifetime, until one October evening when a child had knocked on his door, probably the first child who ever had. Not having any candy or trinkets to give, he had handed over the only child-appropriate item in his house. To me.

Last week I was in Butte visiting. I had an hour free just to myself. I did the same thing I always do when I have a free hour in Butte. I went to Pork Chop Johns and ordered a sandwich with mustard and pickles. Since it’s close to the old neighborhood, I drove by the house I grew up in. The balcony my dad built is still there. The old house looks nice. The bush-trees in the front yard looked way too small for me to have every climbed on, but yet I know that I did many times.

I drove past the funeral home. I drove past the house that always had a yard full of German Shepherds. I drove down the alley and saw old B.H.’s house, where he liked to pee in the alley in front of the other kids.  That kid peed on everything. 

Then I came to my old house, and was pleased to see that the cement slab in the backyard was still there. Cracking and old, but still there. I didn’t have to go in the yard to know that in the right hand corner of that slab, is a cartoon kitten that my dad let me draw in the wet cement with my finger. I smiled at the secret knowledge that three child-sized paces south of the tip of the kitten’s tail, a time-capsule is buried deep in the cement. I know that inside the time capsule is my fourth-grade school picture, an Indian head penny, and a special note to whoever finds it. 

Then, at the end of the block, I came to the lot where Leroy’s trailer once stood. Now it’s just a lot. Maybe even just half a lot. Things always look so small when you go back in time.  The grass is still tall. I wrinkled my forehead, and for a brief moment I wondered if Leroy had been real. Maybe I just imagined the whole thing.

But then, in the tall grass, I saw a pipe in the ground. The rusty brown pipe snaked out of the ground, reaching for nothing.  Once, it connected to a meter, and that meter connected to an old pink trailer.  From that old pink trailer, loud wailing music from a long-gone era blared throughout the neighborhood, annoying anyone with open windows.  I smile as I think of it.  In my mind I see the whole trailer now, the dented southern corner, the dirt path leading to the rickety front steps. The TV antenna that sat on the top of the trailer.  The tire in the yard.  The time his little yapping dog bit Jennipher in the ankle, and how her mother wouldn’t let her come over to my house for two years after the fact.  The bare bulb over the front door that Leroy had turned on when I knocked that long ago evening, and handed me the lion. The lion who could do anything.

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15 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. BrightKitten / Apr 22 2013 1:28 pm

    Don’t. ever. stop. writing.

    Love you Sharon.

  2. Bad Pants / Apr 22 2013 1:16 pm

    Three-and-a-half years later, and this is still one of my favorite things on the internet.

    Thank you so much 🙂

  3. Lynn Stevens / Nov 2 2009 4:35 am

    I love your story. You inspire me. I was talking to someone recently about you (JD I think) and she mentioned you didn’t work for BAH anymore. So, cruised facebook to see where you were and found your link! Hope all is well in your world, thanks for the window into it!

    • maleesha / Nov 29 2009 8:02 am

      Hey Lynn – Thanks for looking me up. I did work in the Colorado Springs BAH office for 5 years after I left DC…but Montana was calling my name.

  4. Carli / Oct 30 2009 4:10 pm

    awww…that was a great story!! I miss ol’ Leroy. He used to ride around on that damned bike in the middle of winter with his fingerless gloves on…not the intentional fingerless gloves you can buy at the store, but the kind of glove that’s been so well used that the fingertips have simply worn away. He used to ask my mom if he could borrow 10 bucks here and there, promising to repay her in a week, and sure enough, just like clockwork, he always kept his word. I always liked Leroy. It really is a shame we didn’t ever get to really talk with him. I’m sure he had a lifetime of stories to tell, but was just waiting for someone to listen.

  5. teeni / Oct 9 2009 10:31 am

    So well written. Reminds me of the “Ballad of Curtis Lowe” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Both make me a bit sad but remind me to appreciate more what we have when we have it because everything is just so temporary.

  6. bluesuit12 / Oct 9 2009 6:14 am

    Loved this story! I wish I could have known Leroy.

  7. smalltownsmalltimes / Oct 9 2009 5:46 am

    Transformative once again. You are soooo good.

  8. Romi / Oct 8 2009 11:12 am

    That was a beautiful story; I was hooked from the first line to the last sentence; and it was so easy to visualize, I felt like i was watching an episode of Wonder Years with the narration and everything, haha 😉 …do you ever submit these story gems anywhere? They’re fantastic!

  9. David / Oct 7 2009 6:43 pm

    Thank you for sharing this Maleesha. So nicely written. Your reminiscences are very moving.

  10. megan / Oct 7 2009 7:20 am

    What a fantastic story, Maleesha. You write so vividly. Have you considered doing NaNoWriMo?

  11. Taoist Biker / Oct 7 2009 5:26 am

    Wow. This is utterly beautiful.

  12. Mike Goad / Oct 7 2009 5:10 am

    Nice story. Reminds me a little of an old man who I stopped and talked to when I was collected money due on a newspaper route for a friend who had broken an arm. He was in a very small house by himself and told me about being in the army during the Spanish American War. He never made it to battle — ended up in the hospital fighting malaria.

    So many things and people are left behind and forgotten in our memory until some particular set of circumstances or words brings them back, at least for a short while.

  13. Ian / Oct 7 2009 5:10 am

    Outstanding!

  14. Fawn / Oct 6 2009 11:13 pm

    Wonderful story, Maleesha. I loved reading it.

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